Thursday, December 31, 2009

Freedom's Children - The EMI LPs (Shadoks, 2008)

When one stops to think about the tumultuous history and continuously changing personnel of Freedom's Children, it's pretty amazing that they were able not only to record three albums during their brief existence, but three very good albums at that. This South African psychedelic rock band's sound was as audacious as their name, which was chosen during the bad old days of apartheid and at the peak of the country's international isolation. Although their three EMI LPs have been previously reissued in legitimate and not-so-legitimate capacities, Shadoks Music presents them in their best-ever sound quality on this limited-edition box set. All of the master tapes were apparently destroyed in a fire many years ago, which made it necessary for this project's producers to seek out near-mint copies of the original albums from collectors as source material. While not sonically perfect, these CDs are likely to be the best sounding reissues ever to be available. With that in mind, I have also made Freedom's Children's three albums available in FLAC format for those of you who are obsessed with audio fidelity.

South African rock historians generally identify Scottish-born bass player and lyricist Ramsay MacKay as the group's founder and main creative force. As was the case with numerous other contemporary groups around the world, he and other future members started out playing American R&B before venturing into more experimental forms of music. (As an aside, it's kind of ironic that black American music was popular at all in what was then one of the most segregated countries on the planet.) After stints in groups such as the Stilettos and the Beathovens, MacKay became acquainted with drummer Colin Pratley and Nic Martens, who would respectively go on to become permanent and occasional members of the future band. MacKay and Pratley eventually ended up in the coastal city of Durban, where they joined forces with guitarist Ken E. Henson and keyboardist Jimmy Thompson (nee Demetrius Thomopoulos), which completed the lineup of Freedom's Children Mk. I. This version of the group achieved a certain amount of notoriety in early 1967 for their freak-outs and psychedelic light shows, both practically unheard of in South Africa in that day and age.

The attention that they had garnered from their live shows led to their signing with a local record label, which insisted on marketing their material under the name "Fleadom's Children" because of the controversial nature of the band's actual name. It was around this time that further personnel changes took place with Thompson's departure and the additions of electric pianist/vocalist Craig Ross and magnificent lead guitarist Julian Laxton. This lineup proceeded to record a handful of early singles that were cover versions of songs that, for the most part, had been hits for other artists of the era. Freedom's Children then headed for the greener pastures of Johannesburg, but by early 1968, guitarist Henson had left the group and was replaced by singer and organist Harry Poulos. Further turnover occurred later in the year with Ross, Laxton, and Poulos leaving the fold. Before the end of the year, MacKay and Pratley were all that remained of the band. The duo traveled to England with the hope of establishing a new version of Freedom's Children, but not before spending time in the recording studio and laying down some backing tracks that producers at EMI would ultimately use to cobble together their first LP, Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde.


Once in London, a reconciliation with Laxton and Poulos took place, and they rejoined Freedom's Children. Despite their reformation, however, the band struggled to find gigs in the UK since South Africa's racial policies led to other countries treating its citizens with disdain, regardless of their political beliefs. Indeed, the group could not even obtain work permits because of their homeland's pariah status at the time, a fine example of liberalism run amok since the members of Freedom's Children were against apartheid. Nevertheless, they did manage to find some work through illegal live performances, but their overall lack of commitments gave them plenty of time for practice, LSD trips, and further developing their sound. Laxton especially took advantage of this opportunity by working on his pet project, a modified echo box for guitar that would heavily contribute to the extremely distinct sound of their next album, Astra. Their first LP, Battle Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde, which predominantly featured a cast of session musicians, was released in South Africa around this time
, but not long afterward, Pratley had to return home due to visa problems. Freedom's Children soldiered on with replacement drummers and other musicians but eventually left England and returned home in early 1970.

Poulos left the band not long afterward, although they were reunited with Pratley and added the powerful vocals of new singer Brian Davidson. Armed with yet another reconstituted lineup as well as the lyrical and musical material MacKay and Laxton had been working on in the UK, Freedom's Children headed into the studio to record their first proper album, Astra. Augmented by the keyboard work of Gerald Nel and old friend Nic Martens and encouraged to experiment by producer Clive Calder, the musicians proceeded to create a truly remarkable work. MacKay, however, abruptly left the band after Astra's release in 1970 and was replaced on bass by Barry Irwin. This incarnation of Freedom's Children recorded the equally excellent Galactic Vibes, which was recorded and released in 1971. The group then effectively dissolved after Pratley and Davidson resigned and joined back up with MacKay and Ken E. Henson only to create Freedom's Children Mk. VIII. Not surprisingly, this version didn't last long, either, and the band finally called it a day.

Most former members of Freedom's Children remained musically active over the next few decades, and some have even resurrected the group's name for various projects over the years, but a proper reunion never did occur. Be that as it may, they did leave behind a most impressive recorded legacy. Writer Nick Warburton contributes a mostly excellent set of notes to this box set, which have been scanned in their entirety for your perusal. For an online version of these notes plus additional information on and photos of South Africa's greatest rock band, go to this site.

Note: If anyone out there has the Fresh Music versions of these CDs that include bonus tracks (singles, etc.), please get in touch with me ASAP as I'm eager to hear that material.

Freedom's Children - Battle Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde (EMI, 1969; 2008)

Considering that, for the most part, only two members of the band, bassist/lyricist Ramsay MacKay and drummer Colin Pratley, actually played on this album, Battle Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde is pretty good. When compared to the two subsequent albums by Freedom's Children, however, it is clear that their recorded debut was by far their weakest effort. But as is the case with all great bands, even the lesser works are worth a listen.

The story behind
Battle Hymn is a strange one. By late 1968, Freedom's Children had already made a name for themselves in their native South Africa. Nevertheless, constant changes in personnel left MacKay and Pratley as the only remaining musicians left to carry on the name at the time. Although the duo had already made plans to relocate to England and start a new version of the band, they spent their remaining time in South Africa working on the beginnings of their first long player. The project stalled when the bassist and drummer encountered difficulties working with producer John Nowell, although prior to their departure they did manage to record backing tracks and (in MacKay's case) the narration that would be interspersed between the songs. Battle Hymn was eventually released in early 1969 while the reformed Freedom's Children were finding their way in London.

Not surprisingly, MacKay and Pratley were a bit taken aback when the album came out since their presence was barely discernible on it. Indeed, the finished version of Battle Hymn featured a host of session musicians and singers performing on most of the tracks, which resulted in it sounding radically different than the style developed on Freedom's Childrens's next two LPs. The fact that there are spoken-word sections (displaying MacKay's Scots brogue to good effect) between the songs suggests that this is a concept album despite the disjointed nature in which it came to fruition. The closest I can come to finding a spot where the concept is revealed is to point out a passage in the first track, "Introduction," wherein MacKay states, "I was going to battle against myself." The album then proceeds to the gentle, folky "Season," which is then followed by the garagey "Judas Queen." "Mrs. Browning" features the crooning of an unknown vocalist (Steve Trend? Dennis Robertson? Peter Vee?), and sounds like an English music hall piece on acid. "Country Boy" is what its title suggests: South African country music, or at least a close approximation thereof. "Your Father's Eyes" is more folky gentleness. The first side concludes with a radio-like advertisement for Pepsi (one of the most despicable "food" corporations on the planet) that I thought upon first listening had been placed there as an ironic statement. However, according to group biographer Nick Warburton, EMI used such a promotional spot as a way to help finance the LP's production. "Eclipse" has a majestic feel to it as well as some nice guitar work likely from Pete Clifford, while "Ten Years Ago" is musically akin to "Mrs. Browning." The stunning "Kafkasque" (also rightfully included on the Love, Peace & Poetry: African Psychedelic Music comp) had been released as the band's first single for EMI the previous year and is apparently the only track on the album to feature a genuine version of Freedom's Children (probably the lineup that included MacKay, Pratley, guitarist Julian Laxton, electric pianist/vocalist Craig Ross, and organist/vocalist Harry Poulos). Sounding at times not unlike Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the only mystery about this sublime psychedelic nugget is the title. Is it a misspelling of Kafkaesque, meaning "1. Of or relating to Franz Kafka or his writings" or "2. Marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger"? Inquiring minds would like to know. The lovely "Boundsgreen Fair" sounds like a Donovan or Incredible String Band-influenced piece, and the album ends on a strong note with the poetically rocking "Miss Wendy's Dancing Eyes Have Died" in spite of it being followed by another one of those annoying Pepsi commercials.

1. Introduction
2. Season
3. Judas Queen
4. Mrs. Browning
5. Country Boy
6. Your Father's Eyes
7. Eclipse
8. Ten Years Ago
9. Kafkasque
10. Boundsgreen Fair
11. Miss Wendy's Dancing Eyes Have Died

Freedom's Children - Astra (EMI 1970; 2008)

Viewed by most fans as Freedom's Children's masterpiece, I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb here by opining that while it's definitely a great album, it's still not necessarily my favorite in the band's discography. Make no mistake though, this is truly an excellent mind-expanding LP in which all of the tracks sound as if they have been covered in an LSD-coated glaze. Most of the material was written by bassist/lyricist Ramsay MacKay while the band resided in England throughout 1969, during which time guitarist Julian Laxton also worked on developing a customized echo box as well as becoming proficient with other electronics used for musical experimentation. Apparently, the band members' collective viewing of the Apollo 11 moon landing during an acid trip was a key moment in the development of this LP. There also seems to be a religious theme than runs through Astra, although MacKay denies that it's a concept album about Jesus in spite of the presence of a difficult to describe but nonetheless palpable spiritual quality present on many of the songs.


When Freedom's Children returned to their native South Africa to record this LP in 1970, their lineup at the time included the aforementioned MacKay and Laxton as well as drummer Colin Pratley and keyboardist Nic Martens. Session musician Gerald Nel contributed piano, and despite photography in the gatefold showing original lead singer Craig Ross, the album features the mighty pipes of outstanding new vocalist Brian Davidson. The overall quality of the musicianship displayed on Astra is absolutely staggering in its virtuosity.


The opener, "Aileen," is apparently a song that features lyrics of an older vintage effectively combined with the band's newfound effects-laden sound. Is "The Homecoming" Freedom's Children's greatest song? With its spacey guitar and keyboards coupled with Davidson's delivery of MacKay's visionary lyrics, it just might be. The prevailing conservatism in South Africa at the time necessitated changing the title of Jesus-as-outlaw song "The Kid Came from Nazareth" to "The Kid Came from Hazareth." This is another transcendent tune and sounds like something a heavier and more mystical version of The Bob Seger System might have recorded. "Medals of Bravery" is a fine anti-Vietnam War performance, while "Tribal Fence"
provides commentary on South Africa's own political issues in an ethereally psychedelic musical context. The extraordinary two-part "Gentle Beasts" is an example of art that only could have resulted from growing up in the isolated Eastern Tranvaal, as MacKay had after his family's relocation from Scotland. "Slowly Toward the North," another two-part composition, maintains the mind-expanding vibe, and the magnificent "Afterward," with its sermon-like conclusion, closes the album on a rather stately note.


1. Aileen
2. The Homecoming
3. The Kid Came from Hazareth
4. Medals of Bravery
5. Tribal Fence
6. Gentle Beasts Part I
7. Gentle Beasts Part II
8. Slowly Toward the North Part I
9. Slowly Toward the North Part II
10. Afterward

Freedom's Children - Galactic Vibes (EMI 1971; 2008)

And so we come to Freedom's Children's last and what I believe is their best album, the enticingly-titled Galactic Vibes. With group founder Ramsay MacKay out of the picture at this point in the band's history (and replaced by the solid bassist Barry Irwin), this LP should not be as thoroughly excellent as it is. However, it indeed deserves such accolades as it effectively takes the experimentation prevalent on Astra to the next logical level. Guitar god Julian Laxton and vocalist nonpareil Brian Davidson ably fill the void caused by MacKay's absence, helping make Galactic Vibes the band's heaviest album. Whereas Laxton at times sounds almost overwhelmed by the guitar effects and electronics on Astra, here he has clearly mastered his customized echo box and other innovations. Davidson also sounds less tentative than he did before with his voice often coming on like a force of nature. Such a combination of talents will, of course, invite comparisons to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, regardless of the fact that Freedom's Children were far more imaginative than the supremely overrated Led Zeppelin. Moreover, group biographer Nick Warburton unfairly dismisses Galactic Vibes as "pal(ing) in comparison with its predecessor," and in doing so neglects to provide any details about the songs or production of the LP in his otherwise superlative history of the band. I don't disagree that Astra is an outstanding album, but Vibes is at the very least its artistic equal.


Laxton displays some amazing guitar pyrotechnics on "Sea Horse" that are superbly complemented by Davidson's wailing vocals. I still can't get enough of the former's wah-wah and cutting lead lines on this one, and that's why it can still be found on my iPod some seven months after being downloaded there. The epic live version of "The Homecoming" - again, featuring Laxton's guitar work that is seemingly capable of moving mountains and parting seas - suffers in comparison to the original on Astra only because of sole founding member Colin Pratley's somewhat tedious drum solo. This, however, is a very minor criticism. The knobs get turned up to 11 on the awe-inspiring "That Did It," which is such a powerful performance that additional words fail me. Just listen to it and be amazed. There's a certain orchestrated grandeur to "Fields and Me" and "About the Dove and His King" that nicely contrasts with the amplified fury of the album's harder tracks, while the electronically-enhanced instrumental "The Crazy World of Pod" and haunting "1999" (a piece written by Ramsay MacKay) would not have sounded out of place on Astra.

In short, an extraordinary listening experience.

1. Sea Horse
2. The Homecoming (live)
3. That Did It
4. Fields and Me
5. The Crazy World of Pod (Electronic Concerto)
6. 1999
7. About the Dove and His King

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Record Fiend on National Public Radio

I realize that this is extremely short notice, but I would like to inform you all that I will be featured in a story concerning music blogs that will air on National Public Radio's All Things Considered news program tonight (Wednesday, December 30, 2009) around 4:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Freelance reporter Joel Rose conducted an interview with me a few weeks ago, and I think he'll be using some soundbites from my rambling comments about reissuing rare music and how sites like this one are helping underappreciated musicians find a larger audience. Check it out.

You can read a little blurb (where I'm quoted a few times) about this story here on NPR's website.

Also, if you can't catch the story when it is originally broadcast, you can go to this page on NPR's website to stream it to your computer. Scroll down a bit until you come to the podcast with the title "Obscure Music Finds An Outlet On The Web."

I'll be honest and tell you that I had mixed feelings about providing an interview for this story. While I'm excited about the additional exposure that NPR will bring to this blog, I'm also concerned that such attention might also bring the wrong kind of visitors here. You know, the kind of visitors that cause blogs to get shut down. In the end, I decided that it was worth the risk. As much as I love doing this blog, I've always viewed it as a vehicle to help my writings get noticed. If the exposure that the NPR story will provide leads to Record Fiend getting axed but also gives me additional opportunities for professional writing gigs, then that might be a fair trade-off as far as I'm concerned. So this could be the beginning of the end or, hopefully, the beginning of bigger and better things.

As long as I'm up on my soapbox, I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank all the people who have left comments during the last few weeks as well as those who have recently become followers of Record Fiend. I really appreciate that kind of attention, and it inspires me to keep posting rare albums for your listening pleasure (and nagging my contributors to do the same).

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Oxford American 2005 Southern Music CD

It's been awhile since I posted an Oxford American Southern Music comp, so here's the CD from the 2005 issue, and what a fine sampler it is. As with other volumes in this series, the producers manage to cram a staggering amount of artistic variety on just one disc. Even aficionados of the most obscure types of music are likely to find something of interest here.


I guess some people think it's cute when you have a bunch of kids from another country sing a nursery rhyme like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" Thus the track by the Schoolchildren of Wanseko, Uganda. This compilation really gets under way with Dale Hawkins' "Mystery Train"-like "Number Nine Train," which compares favorably with early Elvis. Speaking of the King, his live version of "Suspicious Minds" serves as evidence that not all of his later-period stuff totally sucked. Early rock 'n' roll is also well represented by the Buddy Holly demo recording of "Dearest." There is lots of good Southern Soul to be found here, including Howard Tate's "Where Did My Baby Go," Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart," Joe Tex's "You Said a Bad Word," and Al Green's "I'm Glad You're Mine." "Sally Jo" is fine modern-day bluegrass by Ricky Skaggs, while enthusiasts of hillbilly and early country music will probably enjoy the Western Swing version of "Milk Cow Blues" by Johnnie Lee Wills (Bob's younger brother) and his Boys as well as the DeZurik Sisters' "Arizona Yodeler." "Crow Dance" is an interesting a cappella piece that folklorist Zora Neal Hurston had evidently learned while doing research on Bahamian music in the 1920s. "Had a Gal Called Sal" is good electric blues courtesy of Lightnin' Hopkins, but if prewar blues is your thing, check out Blind Willie McTell's "Searching the Desert for the Blues." Difficult-to-classify Jim Ford turns in a great performance with "I'm Gonna Make Her Love Me." Some people might call a song like this "country soul," but let's just say it's rock 'n' roll so that I can also mention Bubble Puppy's "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" (surely you're all familiar with this, right?) and the early Johnny Winter track, "You'll Be the Death of Me." Pianist John Davis performs a short composition by Blind Tom Wiggins titled "Oliver Galop" that only hints at the tremendous talent of this forgotten giant of American music. Born a slave circa 1850, the sight-impaired "idiot savant" had not only become one of America's most famous musicians by the late 1860s, but internationally recognized as well. Read more about his fascinating story here. Country music songwriting legend Jack Clement hasn't exactly been prolific the last quarter century or so, but his take on the self-penned "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" from his 2004 album Guess Things Happen That Way is almost as good as Johnny Cash's better-known version. And yes, that's the Man in Black you hear on backing vocals. If you're looking for more worthwhile postwar country material, give "Trouble's Back in Town" by the Wilburn Brothers and the outstanding "This Room for Rent" by the underrated Sammi Smith a listen. Need a jazz fix? Then see what Henry "Red" Allen's lively "Get the Mop" and Nat King Cole's sophisticated "Beale Street Blues" can do for you. Or if you like female jazz vocalists doing vintage New Orleans music, you can't go wrong with Helen Humes' rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In." Although primarily thought of as a New York street musician, the legendary Moondog did spend a considerable amount of his youth in the South, so I guess that his "Symphonique #6" belongs on a comp like this after all. Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith could also capably handle spiritual material as demonstrated by "On Revival Day." The a cappella novelty gospel of "Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb" by the Pilgrim Travelers is pretty sweet, too. Erykah Badu's "Southern Gul" is too hip hop for my tastes, but some of you might enjoy it. And in similar fashion to this comp's opening track, the presumably Cajun piece "Un Matin, J'Etais sur ma Galerie" by Elita, Mary, and Ella Hoffpauir is just a little too brief and cloying to be useful.


Get the 1997 CD here and the 2003 CD here.

1. Row, Row, Row Your Boat - Schoolchildren of Wanseko, Uganda
2. Number Nine Train - Dale Hawkins
3. Where Did My Baby Go - Howard Tate
4. Sally Jo - Ricky Skaggs
5. Milk Cow Blues - Johnnie Lee Wills and his Boys
6. Crow Dance - Zora Neal Hurston
7. Had a Gal Called Sal - Lightnin' Hopkins
8. I'm Gonna Make Her Love Me - Jim Ford
9. Oliver Galop - Blind Tom (played by John Davis)
10. Get the Mop - Henry "Red" Allen
11. Hot Smoke and Sassafras - Bubble Puppy
12. You'll Be the Death of Me - Johnny Winter
13. Ballad of a Teenage Queen - Cowboy Jack Clement
14. The Arizona Yodeler - The DeZurik Sisters
15. Symphonique #6 (Good for Goodie) - Moondog
16. On Revival Day (A Rhythmic Spiritual) - Bessie Smith
17. When the Saints Go Marching In - Helen Humes
18. Beale Street Blues - Nat King Cole
19. Southern Gul - Erykah Badu
20. Piece of My Heart - Irma Franklin
21. Trouble's Back in Town - The Wilburn Brothers
22. This Room for Rent - Sammi Smith
23. Searching the Desert for the Blues - Blind Willie McTell
24. You Said a Bad Word - Joe Tex
25. I'm Glad You're Mine - Al Green
26. Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb - The Pilgrim Travelers
27. Suspicious Minds (live) - Elvis Presley
28. Dearest - Buddy Holly
29. Un Matin, J'Etais sur ma Galerie - Elita, Mary, and Ella Hoffpauir

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Songster Tradition 1927-1935 (Document, 1991)

The Songster Tradition 1927-1935 is arguably the most compelling title in the Document 5000 Series of compact discs that were originally released in the 1990s. In contrast to the eminently listenable albums put out by Yazoo, Document's counterparts often contained a significant amount of filler in order to present a musician's complete works in chronological order. Every now and then, however, certain compilations featured those rare artists whose recordings maintained a consistently high standard from one track to the next. The Songster Tradition is such an anthology since it can be listened to from beginning to end without the need to click the skip button to get to the next song.

As its title suggests, this collection gathers together performances by black musicians known as songsters whose repertories largely consisted of material that predated the blues. These proto-blues recordings often included ballads, coon songs, rags, and other types of music that had been popular from the late 1800s up until 1920 or so. One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of race records is that labels did not always document African-American music as it currently existed but rather as it had previously been. In this day and age when change seem to occur faster than ever and elements of popular culture more than a mere month old are considered passe, such a concept may be very difficult to comprehend. But back during the early 20th Century when there were no cell phones or Internet and distinctly regional forms of black folk culture still flourished in the relative isolation of the rural South, it was not uncommon to find songsters and other proto-blues musicians whose recordings from the 1920s consisted of material that was already 20 to 40 years old. To add to the confusion, there is the age of the blues itself. Most music scholars seem to agree that blues as it is recognized today must have developed around 1900 or so. However, it wasn't until the 1920s and 1930s that it reached its peak in popularity and the concept of a blues singer - that is, a musician whose repertory is made up exclusively of blues songs - came into being, which was probably something that record companies had artificially imposed anyway. During the interim, songsters were the ones who played and popularized this style of music as demonstrated by the number of blues and proto-blues songs that appear on this compilation. Thus, even someone like Charlie Patton, known as "The Founder of the Delta Blues," could be considered a songster when one stops to consider his complete discography. But I digress...


The first musicians presented on The Songster Tradition are the Down Home Boys, a trio that included vocalist Papa Harvey Hull as well as guitarists "Long Cleve" Reed and Sunny Wilson.
Blues historians Stephen Calt and Chris Smith posit that they were natives of northern Mississippi, a region that is as musically different from the Delta as it is geographically. Their recorded legacy is the epitome of the songster sound, featuring a coon song ("Gang of Brown Skin Women," a retitled version of "I've Got a Gal for Ev'ry Day in the Week"), a bad man ballad ("Original Stack O'Lee Blues") and material that probably dates from circa 1900, including the superb "Don't You Leave Me Here" (an "Alabama Bound" variant), "Mama You Don't Know How," "Hey! Lawdy Mama - The France Blues" (my favorite), and "Two Little Tommies Blues." The last two numbers are particularly noteworthy for the artists' fantastic harmony singing, a characteristic much more prevalent in proto-blues material than in blues. All six of these sides are magnificent, and it's a shame that the Down Home Boys never recorded again after 1927. Big Boy Cleveland is a biographical non-entity, although I've seen other writers classify him as a Memphis or northern Mississippi musician based mostly on his playing style. His first side, "Quill Blues," has to be one of the most delightfully primitive recordings ever made. Although Cleveland was adept on pan pipes like fellow songster Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, he differed in that he plays it unaccompanied (at least in this particular case), imparting this instrumental performance with an almost African flavor. "Goin' to Leave You Blues" sounds like it could have been recorded by a completely different musician what with the singer's eerie vocals and a slide guitar style that at times recalls Furry Lewis. For unknown reasons, Cleveland muffs the last verse and the song ends somewhat abruptly, which actually adds to the performance in my estimation. William and Versey Smith are two more mystery musicians who recorded a few sides, and then dropped off the face of the earth. William is the lead singer and presumably the guitarist, while his wife (?), Versey, provides vocal accompaniment and probably plays the tambourine. They display an appealing call-and-response singing style not unlike Blind Willie Johnson and his female partners, especially on the spirituals "I Believe I'll Go Back Home" and "Sinner You'll Need King Jesus," the latter of which the aforementioned gospel guitarist recorded as "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond." "When that Great Ship Went Down," of course, is a ballad about the sinking of the Titanic, and, judging by its title and lyrics, "Everybody Help the Boys Come Home" must be a song dating from World War I.


For whatever reason, prewar blues from Virginia was not extensively recorded during the 1920s, and proto-blues even less so. Therefore, we should consider ourselves fortunate that Victor Records saw fit to record a significant number of sides by guitarist Luke Jordan during two sessions in 1927 and 1929. Although his voice bears a superficial resemblance to that of Skip James, his guitar style, which Chris Smith describes as having "an intriguing Latin influence," was utterly his own. Regarded as his signature song, "Church Bells Blues"
was apparently something Jordan had learned from other musicians around 1914. Its lyrics express wry condemnation of organized religion (some lines also appear in Rube Lacy's "Ham Hound Crave") mixed in with several sets of floating verses. "Pick Poor Robin Clean" is a song of even older vintage with its animal characters recalling other anthropomorphic figures in African-American folklore such as Br'er Rabbit. It is another piece that was also done by musicians from Mississippi, in this case Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. The test pressings of these two songs provide a fascinating opportunity to hear how such material evolved both musically and lyrically during the short span of just one recording session. "Cocaine Blues" graphically describes the dangers of this particular narcotic ("The doctor said it will kill you, but he didn't say when") as well as the risks of buying merchandise from the furniture man with easy credit, suggesting a possible amalgam of at least two other songs. (The Holy Modal Rounders did a cover version in their own inimitable style on their Indian War Whoop LP that is definitely worth hearing.) "Traveling Coon" celebrates a wandering black man with supernatural powers who uses such abilities for getting off the Titanic just before it sinks, escaping a hostile courtroom, and generally outfoxing white people. Musically, "My Gal's Done Quit Me" seems to be cut from the same cloth as "Church Bells Blues," while "Won't You be Kind?" comes off as a kind of manifesto for the lifestyle of a rounder (Jordan?) dependent on the charity of his multiple girlfriends. Eli Framer is another near-cipher about whom we know very little other than his possible origins in Alabama. Although both "Framer's Blues" and "God Didn't Make Me No Monkey Man" are arguably more blues than songster material, their respective characteristics suggest that they are blues of the earliest variety. Regardless of the label attached to them, these are both very engaging performances. Although recorded comparatively late in the game (1935), Louie Lasky's bold flatpicking style (an early influence on Big Bill Broonzy) hearkens back to earlier forms of African-American music. While "How You Want Your Rollin' Done" (a better-sounding version is available here) and the similar "Teasin' Brown" both fall within the blues idiom, the references in "Caroline" to Priscilla Dean and Gloria Swanson, two movie actresses popular in the 1910s, suggest that Lasky was old enough to have been part of the songster generation.

As for the banjo-playing Uncle Remus figure on the booklet cover, I have no idea who it is as he is never identified, nor is banjo featured on any of the tracks included on this release. Anyway, try not to let such minor details interfere with your listening pleasure.

1. Gang of Brown Skin Women - The Down Home Boys
2. Hey! Lawdy Mama - The France Blues - The Down Home Boys
3. Two Little Tommies Blues - The Down Home Boys
4. Don't You Leave Me Here - The Down Home Boys
5. Mama You Don't Know How - The Down Home Boys
6. Original Stack O'Lee Blues
- The Down Home Boys
7. Quill Blues - Big Boy Cleveland
8. Goin' to Leave You Blues - Big Boy Cleveland
9. I Believe I'll Go Back Home - William and Versey Smith
10. When that Great Ship Went Down
- William and Versey Smith
11. Everybody Help the Boys Come Home
- William and Versey Smith
12. Sinner You'll Need King Jesus
- William and Versey Smith
13. Church Bells Blues (test pressing) - Luke Jordan
14. Church Bells Blues
- Luke Jordan
15. Pick Poor Robin Clean (test pressing)
- Luke Jordan
16. Pick Poor Robin Clean
- Luke Jordan
17. Cocaine Blues
- Luke Jordan
18. Traveling Coon
- Luke Jordan
19. My Gal's Done Quit Me
- Luke Jordan
20. Won't You Be Kind?
- Luke Jordan
21. Framer's Blues - Eli Framer
22. God Didn't Make Me No Monkey Man - Eli Framer
23. How You Want Your Rollin' Done - Louie Lasky
24. Teasin' Brown Blues - Louie Lasky
25. Caroline - Louie Lasky

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kansas City Blues 1924-1929 (Document, 1993)

Although primarily known for its 1930s jazz scene, Kansas City was also home to a number of interesting prewar blues artists whose performing styles were completely unique to their region. Unfortunately, most of these musicians are largely forgotten today, even among many of the blues cognoscenti. Some of this may have to do with the fact that record companies who catered to the race market mostly ignored this Midwestern metropolis in the 1920s, leaving its musicians sadly under-recorded. Even companies such as Paramount, Brunswick, and Gennett who did see commercial potential in releasing blues sides from Kansas City required the musicians to travel to their studios in Chicago or Richmond, Indiana. The only recording sessions that apparently did occur in KC were conducted by the local Meritt label, whose discography is scant even by race records standards.

So what does this music sound like? As this very good collection demonstrates, the sound of prewar Kansas City blues is a varied one, with the assorted artists featured here displaying similarities to or the influences of better-known classic female blues singers, hot jazz, prewar country blues, medicine show performers, and even hillbilly music, which considering the municipality's position at the crossroads of North and South and East and West should not be that surprising. Half of the tracks feature the vocal talents of Lottie Kimbrough (aka Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough or Lena Kimbrough), who, judging by the illustration on the booklet cover, possessed an appropriate nickname in "The Kansas City Butter-Ball." Compared by some to Ma Rainey, I actually find Kimbrough's recordings to be more interesting, even though I'm usually not a big fan of accompanied prewar female blues singers. That said, she does possess a truly remarkable, booming voice which is nicely complemented by the guitar and banjo of The Pruitt Twins on "Regular Man Blues," "Honey Blues," and "Red River Blues," tuning problems on the last number notwithstanding. "Sugar Daddy" and "Low Down Painful" are two stately parlor blues pieces with early jazz pianist Jimmy Blythe skillfully tickling the ivories, while my favorite of the sides from 1924, "Mama Can't Lose" also features a banjoist who might be Papa Charlie Jackson. "City of the Dead" and "Cabbage Head Blues" are the most jazz-like recordings on this disc what with the accompaniment of Paul Banks' Kansas City Trio, both released on promoter Winston Holmes' aforementioned Meritt label. The latter title is especially interesting as it pairs Lottie with her brother Sylvester on vocals and has its origins in the old English folk song "Old Cuckold" (aka "Our Goodman"). (On a related note, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 would also base his "Wake Up Baby" recorded 32 years later in 1958 on the same ballad.) "Lost Lover Blues" and "Wayward Girl Blues" finds her teamed up with Holmes (who sings, yodels, and alternately imitates bird calls or train whistles) as well as Miles Pruitt on guitar. "Rolling Log Blues" and "Goin' Away Blues" feature Pruitt's uniquely tuned guitar more to the fore, although not as effectively as the remakes he and Kimbrough would record in 1929 (cf.). The unknown piano player and cornetist on "Blue World Blues" give it a jazz flavor akin to "City of the Dead" and "Cabbage Head."

The next half-dozen titles, recorded by Holmes and the virtually unknown guitarist Charlie Turner, are Kansas City Blues' finest moments. The two-part "The Death of Holmes' Mule" is a fascinating glimpse into the lost world of medicine shows and the often bizarre and humorous performances that were staged there. Obviously influenced by gospel music and preacher sermons, this recording tells the story of a bootlegger (Holmes) who buries his "mule" (that's "white mule" as in moonshine as opposed to jackass) with the musical assistance of Turner's impeccable "praying" 12-string slide guitar. "Burying a mule without prayer? You can't do that!" exclaims Turner. Despite their elaborate preparations to ensure an undisturbed rest underground, the duo returns to the "gravesite" only to find that someone else has dug it up. "Glory to my mule," sings Holmes. Amen. "Rounders Lament" is doleful song wherein Holmes expresses regret for his lecherous ways in the eloquent spoken-word introduction and subsequent lyrics. The addition of Miles Pruitt's guitar on "The Kansas City Call" (which also features more of Holmes' amazing whistling) and the bowdlerized hokum tune "Skinner" creates some interesting harmonics in conjunction with the instrument of Turner, who blows a pretty mean harmonica as well. The delightful instrumental "Kansas City Dog Walk" is a guitar tour de force for Turner (as Holmes shouts out encouragement) that at times sounds like something Lead Belly might have done. There's nothing wrong with Paul Banks' piano on "Garbage Can Blues" and "Bird Liver Blues," but I don't care much for Sylvester Kimbrough's singing. He would have been better off sticking to vocal accompaniment on his sister's records.

Blues historian Paul Oliver's always excellent notes are well worth reading in the accompanying booklet for additional information. And for more details about Winston Holmes, be sure to consult the article "Winston Holmes: Kansas City Promoter" in 78 Quarterly No. 2 posted here.

1. Regular Man Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
2. Honey Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
3. Red River Blues
- Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
4. Sugar Daddy Blues
- Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
5. Low Down Painful Blues
- Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
6. Mama Can't Lose
- Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
7. City of the Dead - Lena & Sylvester Kimbrough
8. Cabbage Head Blues - Lena & Sylvester Kimbrough
9. Lost Lover Blues - Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
10. Wayward Girl Blues
- Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
11. Rolling Log Blues
- Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
12. Goin' Away Blues
- Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
13. Blue World Blues
- Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
14. The Death of Holmes' Mule Part 1 - Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
15. The Death of Holmes' Mule Part 2
- Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
16. Rounders Lament
- Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
17. The Kansas City Call
- Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
18. Skinner
- Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
19. Kansas City Dog Walk
- Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
20. Going Away Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
21. Rollin' Log Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
22. Garbage Can Blues - Sylvester Kimbrough
23. Bird Liver Blues - Sylvester Kimbrough

New Computer - Windows 7

I didn't get as much posted last week as I would have liked because I spent almost all of yesterday working on setting up my new desktop computer, which my girlfriend gave to me as an early Christmas and birthday present. (Love you, DS.) This is something that I had simultaneously been looking forward to and dreading. It was something to look forward to because the desktop that it's replacing is more than ten years old (!), although I've refurbished "the old girl" with new hardware, updated software, and an upgrade to the operating system during the decade that I've had it. It still works, but, man, is it slow, and it doesn't particularly like having my external hard drive attached to it. The new computer is nice. It looks more sleek and modern, the components are considerably less bulky, and the thing runs so quietly that if it's in hibernation mode, I don't even know that it's on. The best thing is that the new computer does a much better job with vinyl rips, probably due in large part to its more advanced sound card. The analog hiss that was sometimes apparent on previous posts of LPs from my collection doesn't seem to be as much of an issue with this new setup. So, I think that you'll find that future vinyl rips have better sound quality.

But the change was also something I was dreading because I knew there would probably be compatibility issues transferring files and applications from my old computer to the new one. I was right. Windows 7 is not as bad as Vista, but it's still a bitch. For example, Office 2002 is not compatible with the new operating system. I probably sound stupid for even trying to get this admittedly antiquated software suite to work with Windows 7, but I'll be damned if I have to go out and purchase Office 2007 or 2010. See, it's stuff like this that makes people not feel the least bit guilty for pirating software from Microsoft and other imperialist companies in the technology industry. Oh, you no longer support Office
2002 and won't make a compatibility patch for Windows 7? Well then, fuck you! I don't need all the bells and whistles that come with newer versions of Office. As you can tell, I'm someone who can be pretty resistant to change in certain areas of my life. I mean, hell, I still own a turntable so I can listen to LPs and 45s. If something still works fine for my purposes, then I see no need to change. So, Microsoft, if you're going to make me update, I'll just have to get one of my techie friends to set me up with a pirated version of Office 2007 or 2010. The other thing that really sucks is my Canon multifunction printer (it's also a scanner and fax machine) is not fully compatible with my 64-bit version of Windows 7. Canon has released a patch that allows my model to be used as a printer, which I downloaded and installed. However, they have yet to release a patch that will allow me to make the necessary updates needed for using the device's scanning functions. The real aggravating thing is that Canon has created patches specific to the 32-bit version of Windows 7 that resolve the compatibility issues for printing and scanning. But for poor sods like me who have the 64-bit version of Microsoft's new operating system and the same Canon printer model, we're stuck with a $400 piece of equipment that prints but won't scan. I'm hopeful that their software developers will eventually make the right patch available. Until then, I can't retire my old desktop because I still need it in order to scan documents and pictures. Stupid shit like this makes my blood boil.

OK, end of rant.

P.S. As long as I'm on a roll, check out my response to the comments a visitor left regarding the Chambers Brothers' People Get Ready post. To all you veteran music bloggers out there, should I be worried by comments like this guy's? Are they a harbinger of worse things to come?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Chambers Brothers - Now! (Vault, 1966; 2007)

The second Chambers Brothers album to be released on Vault while they were still apparently signed to the label, Now! is another live LP that, like People Get Ready, was believed to have been recorded at the Unicorn in Boston and the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. Even though the booklet notes suggest that this record was released after their move to Columbia in 1967 (and having huge success with "The Time Has Come Today"), several discographies indicate that it came out in 1966. Does anybody who is reading this know which is correct? Regardless, these performances were likely to have been recorded later than the material that appeared on the preceding album, which would mean they date from 1965 or early 1966. Overall, this is a stronger collection of songs, and the brothers rock even more assuredly this time around.


As with People Get Ready, the tracks consist of blues, rock, and soul numbers from the late 1950s and early 1960s. While hardly innovative, these performances can still be greatly appreciated for their straightforwardness and lack of pretension. Music like this just sounds so natural coming from four black brothers from rural Mississippi who had grown up in poverty. Things start off strongly with a take on "High Heel Sneakers," which had been a hit for Tommy Tucker only a year or two before, and this high standard is maintained throughout the album. Rightly recognized for their outstanding vocal harmonies, the Chambers use them to excellent effect on "Baby Please Don't Go" (which is actually a cover of James Brown's "Please, Please, Please") and "What'd I Say," with the latter being this album's finest moment. No matter how many times you've heard this Ray Charles classic, the group manages to make this eight-minute version sound fresh and vibrant with their exquisite singing helping to take it to the next level. The same goes for "Long Tall Sally." No doubt you're quite familiar with Little Richard's original, but this is an engaging performance with Willie Chambers' solid lead guitar work taking the place of Mr. Penniman's frantic piano playing. "Bony Maronie" is a fine reworking of the Larry Williams tune, while "It's Groovin' Time," a good, bluesy song written by Joe Chambers, is the only track that is not a cover. Jimmy Reed's catalog is revisited on "You Don't Have to Go," which is played at a bit of a brisker pace than the original. It's hard to say who inspired the Chambers Brothers to do "C.C. Rider" since this song goes way, way back, but they certainly do it justice. The closer, "So Fine" (originally done by the Fiestas), is drawn out perhaps just a bit too long, but the group's superb vocal chops will help you ignore such trivial matters.

1. Introduction to
2. High Heel Sneakers
3. Baby Please Don't Go
4. What'd I Say
5. Long Tall Sally
6. Bony Maronie
7. It's Groovin' Time
8. You Don't Have to Go
9. C.C. Rider
10. So Fine

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Chambers Brothers - People Get Ready (Vault, 1966; 2007)

Prior to their smash hit "The Time Has Come Today" on Columbia in 1967, the Chambers Brothers had recorded for second-tier labels such as Folkways and Vault. Although they had something of a following among folk music enthusiasts, it is interesting to note that their use of amplification was not an issue with this particular audience as it had been with Bob Dylan. Was an exception made for them on account of their background? It's hard to say, but they were apparently well received at the 1965 Folk Festival. Perhaps the fact that the utilization of electric instruments did not seem to have an adverse effect on their magnificent, gospel-derived group singing had something to do with it.

Released in 1966, just prior to gaining mass popularity from their aforementioned Top 20 hit, People Get Ready was the first of two Chambers Brothers LPs to be issued during their tenure with Vault. Purported to have recorded at club dates in Los Angeles and Boston sometime in 1965, this album features an assortment of blues, early rock, soul, and pop standards that were typically played at concerts during this stage of the band's career. While certainly not as groundbreaking and mind-expanding as their more adventurous material on Columbia, these are all solid performances buoyed by the brothers' exceptional vocal harmonies. Although never flashy, Joe's capable lead guitar work and Lester's proficient harmonica blowing provide suitable instrumental accompaniment throughout the proceedings, with second guitarist Willie, bassist George, and an unknown drummer (probably not Brian Keenan) serving as the rhythm section.

Like a lot of other contemporary (but mostly white) groups, the Chambers Brothers display a Jimmy Reed influence with the inclusion of "Yes, Yes, Yes" (a retitled version of "Goin' Upside Your Head") and "You've Got Me Running." Even the version of Johnnie Taylor's "You Can Run" is done in the bluesman's characteristic style. "Reconsider Baby," is, of course, a nod to Lowell Fulson, while the rock rendition of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess predates Big Brother & the Holding Company's version by at least a couple of years. Early soul is represented by covers of the Impressions' "People Get Ready" (written by Curtis Mayfield), Barrett Strong's "Money" (written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford), the Isley Brothers' "Your Old Lady," and the Valentinos' "It's All Over Now" (written by Bobby and Shirley Womack). "Tore Up" is a fine take on the Hank Ballard classic, and "Hooka Tooka," while probably inspired by Chubby Checker's hit version from the previous year, demonstrates an indirect folk music influence since the song is a member of the "Green Rocky Road" family. "Call Me" is the only track that is not a cover (with songwriting credits going to Joe and Willie), and, while a good tune, is at least slightly indebted to the sound of the early Isleys, although that's definitely not a bad thing. And one can't help but notice the prominent cowbell and think about how that same instrument would also be used to similar effect on "The Time Has Come Today."


1. Yes, Yes, Yes
2. Tore Up
3. Reconsider Baby
4. You've Got Me Running
5. People Get Ready
6. Money (That's What I Want)
7. You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)
8. Hooka Tooka
9. Call Me
10. Summertime
11. Your Old Lady
12. It's All Over Now

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Armenians on 8th Avenue (Traditional Crossroads, 1996)

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the modern state of Turkey emerged after the end of World War I, the ensuing chaos especially uprooted the communities of minority Armenians, who had done much to contribute to the multiethnic state's rich musical heritage. While some relocated to the relative safety of cosmopolitan Istanbul, a more significant number journeyed across the Atlantic and established new homes in New York City. This phenomenal anthology compiles the recordings of such musicians (presumably made during the 1920s-1940s period as no dates are given) who had established themselves by performing at the Greek-owned cafes and nightclubs on and around 8th Avenue. As Harold G. Hagopian's fact-filled booklet notes point out, the music that these Armenian - as well as Greek, Bulgarian, and Jewish - performers played was "Anatolian," as opposed to ethnic-specific material. Ottoman Turkey had already been something of a melting pot, and over time, a synthesis of its diverse population's musical folkways had occurred along with the adoption of lyrics sung in Turkish, the lingua franca of the empire. This musical evolution continued at places such as Egyptian Gardens, Seventh Veil, the Grecian Palace Cafe, and Port Said, where a uniquely American form of Middle Eastern music began to develop. Armenians on 8th Avenue features some of the finest recordings from several of these musical pioneers.


Oudist extraordinaire Marko Melkon Alemsherian and the legendary Kanuni (kanun master) Garbis Bakirgian
are this collection's musical pillars, having not only recorded numerous titles under their own names but accompanying many of the other artists who appear here as well. They lay down some remarkable ensemble performances on "Seker Oglan" (where Melkon's singing is complemented by Garbis' vocal improvisations), the exquisite "Mavilim," the festive "Dokumaci Kiz," "Aman Memo" (whose heart-wrenching lyrics deal with a mother's impending death), and the graceful "Guvende Oyun Havasi." "Galatada Todoraki," "Vurma Avci Kalbim Yarali," and "Su Dere Bastan Basa" finds Melkon teamed up with redoubtable Bulgarian fiddler Nick Doneff, whose swooping violin solos are quite astounding. "Rast Taksim" is a breathtaking unaccompanied performance in which the oudist improvises in the key of rast, which most closely corresponds to D major in Western music. Other noteworthy sides recorded under Garbis' name include "Nazli Guzel Bebecigim," "Surmelim Gozlerine" (where he is joined by Nick Doneff), "Ninno Yavrum" (a favorite of mine), and the elegant solo kanun improvisation, "Huzzam Taksim."


Armenians on 8th Avenue
also features the talents of other instrumentalists who primarily recorded as sidemen including fiddler Nishan Sedefjian (on the mournful solo violin improvisation "Saba Taksim") and clarinetist John Pappas (who was a skilled violinist as well), a Greek who is backed by Kanuni Garbis on a fantastic variation of a common belly dance theme, "Cifte Telli" (literally "two strings" in Turkish). The female vocalist tradition among diasporic Armenians is represented by performances from Madlen Araradian (the haunting lullaby "Ninni" and the more rhythmic "Sut Ictim Dilim Yandi") and "Sugar Mary" Vartanian (two driving numbers, "Yandim Tokat Yandim" and "Elmas Yuzuk Parmakta"), on which they are accompanied by Marko Melkon and other instrumentalists who appear on this album.


1. Seker Oglan - Marko Melkon
2. Mavilim - Kanuni Garbis
3. Dokumaci Kiz - Marko Melkon
4. Ninni - Madlen Araradian
5. Nazli Guzel Bebecigim - Kanuni Garbis
6. Adalar - Kanuni Garbis
7. Saba Taksim - Nishan Sedefjian
8. Galatada Todoraki - Marko Melkon
9. Yandim Tokat Yandim - Sugar Mary
10. Surmelim Gozlerine - Kanuni Garbis
11. Aman Memo - Kanuni Garbis
12. Vurma Avci Kalbim Yarali - Marko Melkon
13. Elmas Yuzuk Parmakta - Sugar Mary
14. Huzzam Taksim - Kanuni Garbis
15. Deveci - Kanuni Garbis
16. Sut Ictim Dilim Yandi - Madlen Araradian
17. Cifte Telli - John Pappas
18. Ninno Yavrum - Kanuni Garbis
19. Su Dere Bastan Basa - Marko Melkon
20. Rast Taksim - Marko Melkon
21. Raki Icer Gezerim - Marko Melkon
22. Guvende Oyun Havasi - Kanuni Garbis

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Jeannie C. Riley - The Generation Gap (Plantation, 1970)

There's more to Jeannie C. Riley than mini-skirts, go-go boots, big hair, and "Harper Valley PTA" - a lot more, believe me. The fact that she was an incredibly beautiful woman in her prime unfortunately caused many people to focus exclusively on this side of her, ignoring her talent as a singer and forgetting that she recorded not one, but several worthwhile LPs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While producer Shelby Singleton should be commended for giving Riley her big break by signing her to his fledgling Plantation label, he was also apparently responsible for insisting that she maintain her country sex kitten persona while she recorded for him. While this image provided a much-needed jolt of sensuality to conservative Nashville at the time, it also impeded her growth as an artist and probably contributed to her psychological, physical, and spiritual problems later in life.


Of course, she was never able to duplicate the massive success of the Harper Valley PTA LP and the title track (a No. 1 hit single on both the country and pop music charts in 1968), but it wasn't for lack of trying. Indeed, The Generation Gap, in my estimation, is her crowning achievement and most interesting album, from the psychedelic cover artwork to the often adventurous performances found within. "The Generation Gap," with its condemnation of elder hypocrisy, eloquently reveals sympathy for the youth culture of her day. Occupying a space somewhere between the territory of Nancy Sinatra and Bobbie Gentry, the lush "Fine Feathered Friend" features imaginative, seductive lyrics tailor-made for Riley. Beginning with a Doc Watson-like acoustic guitar run, the country psych nugget "Words, Names, Faces" maintains a breakneck pace that never lets up. With its kitchen-sink production, mind-expanding lyrics (e.g. "Words, names, faces, like a muddy river roll across my mind...walkin' through my life with no meaning to the phrases, just words, names, faces") and fascinating guitar effects, this absolutely fantastic - albeit brief - performance is like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn on LSD, not exactly an easy thing to pull off. "My Man" sounds not unlike something Aretha Franklin could have recorded at Muscle Shoals around the same time, while "He Made a Woman Out of Me" features some impressive steel guitar, probably by Pete Drake. "Duty Not Desire," "Darkness Falls," and "Holdin' On" are more typical country songs in sound and subject matter, their inclusion being possible attempts to prevent more traditional listeners from being completely alienated by Riley's otherwise progressive approach. The appearance of Joe South's "Games People Play" (done very nicely by Jeannie, by the way) suggests that he may have had a hand in making this album. I swear that I can hear the distinctive sound of his Danelectro Sitar Guitar on several of this album's tracks. Can anyone out there confirm or disprove his presence here? "Okie from Muskogee" is a capable cover version of Merle Haggard's reactionary hit song and likely another attempt to balance the more forward-thinking sentiments expressed on tracks like "The Generation Gap." The album concludes with the somewhat scandalous "To the Other Woman," in which Riley takes the perspective of an adulteress, a role she would assume in real life when her days as a Nashville hitmaker started to come to an end.

My only quibble with this album is its brevity; it clocks in at less than 30 minutes. Even so, this is an excellent set of tunes and a fine product of its time. Today, Riley is unfortunately a born again Christian. Good thing she left us with a pretty deep recorded legacy while she was still a fetching hell-raiser.


1. The Generation Gap
2. Fine Feathered Friend
3. Words, Names, Faces
4. My Man
5. He Made a Woman out of Me
6. Duty Not Desire
7. Games People Play
8. Darkness Falls
9. Holdin' On
10. Okie from Muskogee
11. To the Other Woman

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Clifford Gibson - Beat You Doing It (Yazoo, 1972)

The most underappreciated prewar blues guitarist? This guy, without question. I really don't understand why Clifford Gibson bears that distinction because he possessed enough talent to be considered one of the all-time greats in the genre. I mean, the man was obviously born to play guitar. Just look at his hands and long fingers in the photograph. Even Robert Johnson would have been jealous. Although Gibson worked within standard blues harmonic patterns and bar structures in addition to showing an occasional Lonnie Johnson influence, it was techniques such as his "inimitable guitar tone," an ability to play two notes almost simultaneously, and use of atypical chords that set him apart from his contemporaries, according to this album's liner notes by Stephen Calt et al. Moreover, he displayed tremendous range with his right thumb, picking the guitar's upper strings with as much ease as its lower strings.

Although he was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1901, Gibson made his home in St. Louis where he associated with the city's other notable blues musicians, including Henry Townsend, Walter Davis, Roosevelt Sykes, and the aforementioned Johnson. Due to his location and sophisticated playing style, he is usually considered an urban blues guitarist despite never earning a hit race record that would presumably result from having a larger, city-based audience. Be that as it may, he recorded a total of 26 solo sides for the Vocalion and QRS labels in 1929, with the creme de la creme appearing on this typically excellent Yazoo release.

As Calt and other blues scholars have noted, Gibson was a truly unique musician. Stylistically, he sounded like no one else and does not seem to have had any musical proteges. With the exception of the occasional floating verse or two, Gibson's repertory often featured lyrics that were exclusive to him. With a market that frequently rewarded predictability over innovation and virtuosity (cf. Skip James), it's actually not that surprising that he isn't as well known as he should be. While his songbook features variations on some of the same themes, Gibson's instrumental prowess manages to make even these near-duplicate performances worthy of the listener's attention.

The liner notes divide the tracks into three separate tuning categories: Spanish ("Hard Headed Blues," "Brooklyn Blues," "Bad Luck Dice," "Levee Camp Moan," "Society Blues," "Beat You Doing It," "Stop Your Rambling"); Vestapol ("Ice and Snow Blues," "Old Time Rider"); and standard in the key of E ("Blues without a Dime," "Sunshine Moan," "Jive Me Blues," "Drayman Blues"). Calt and his cohorts provide contradictory information about "Tired of Being Mistreated Part I," at one point identifying it as an exception to the above groupings, while elsewhere lumping it in with the performances played in Spanish tuning. Are there any guitarists out there who can tell me which it is? Regardless of its characterization, the song was clearly Gibson's signature piece since he also recorded a "Part II" as well as a duet version with Roosevelt Sykes (both available elsewhere). While all of these sides are excellent, there are a few that truly stand out. "Blues without a Dime" features some amazing guitar work during the break and conclusion. The picking technique utilized on "Levee Camp Moan" is quite impressive, as are the runs employed on "Jive Me Blues," "Society Blues," and "Stop Your Rambling." As for "Bad Luck Dice," I like this piece primarily for its clever lyrics that deal with the risks of gambling. Other than an interesting duet with hillbilly singer Jimmy Rodgers from 1931, "Let Me be Your Side Track," Gibson did not return to the recording studio for another 30 years.

He continued to work as a professional musician up until his death in 1963 and was notable for featuring a trained dog that performed tricks as he sang and played guitar while working as a street entertainer in St. Louis' Gaslight Square district. He even recorded a handful of surprisingly compelling singles as "Grandpappy" Gibson for the Bobbin label in 1960. It's a pity that he didn't live quite long enough to have been rediscovered by white enthusiasts during the blues revival of the 1960s when he might have finally received his just dues.

1. Hard Headed Blues
2. Blues without a Dime
3. Tired of Being Mistreated Part I
4. Ice and Snow Blues
5. Brooklyn Blues
6. Bad Luck Dice
7. Sunshine Moan
8. Levee Camp Moan
9. Jive Me Blues
10. Society Blues
11. Old Time Rider
12. Beat You Doing It
13. Drayman Blues
14. Stop Your Rambling