Tuesday, September 7, 2010

OKeh Chicago Blues (Epic, 1982)

The serious blues collectors out there probably have most, if not all, of these performances from 1934-1947 on other albums in their music libraries, but the overall quality of the selections on OKeh Chicago Blues, not to mention the outstanding liner notes by Jim O'Neal, still makes this compilation a worthwhile item to own. Columbia Records engaged in its last significant vinyl reissue campaign during the early 1980s, resulting in this fine two-LP set among many other titles that concentrated on vintage material. After the compact disc became the standard format for music in the mid 1980s, several of these tracks later appeared on releases in Columbia's excellent Roots N' Blues series.


Named after the initials of its founder, Otto K.E. Heinemann, OKeh (pronounced "o-kay") Records debuted in 1918 and earned its place in history as the first label to have a race hit, vaudevillian Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" in 1920. In 1926, after having released many notable early blues, jazz, and country sides, its controlling interest was acquired by Columbia. By 1935, the Great Depression caused the imprint to be put on hiatus, but it was resurrected during the 1940-1946 period as an outlet for Chicago blues recordings. All of the material on this double album was produced by Lester Melrose, who often leased artists with whom he had signed management contracts to competing labels. For example, music buyers were as likely to find Melrose-associated entertainers making records for Decca as they were for RCA Bluebird. Since the sides featured here were originally released not only on OKeh, but on Vocalion and Columbia as well, a more appropriate title would have been Lester Melrose's Chicago Blues, although it doesn't have quite the same cachet. The producer-manager was also known for recording blues musicians in a small group format, regardless of their performing styles. By the late 1930s, many of these ensembles included rhythm sections with bass and drums, which would become a defining characteristic of postwar Chicago blues in the late 1940s and 1950s. Melrose's innovations, however, were viewed by some as influences that diluted and homogenized the music, resulting in somewhat formulaic releases. Although blues from the Windy City did become more rhythmically compelling after the establishment of notable new bloods such as Muddy Waters in the postwar years, Melrose's contributions to the genre still should not be discounted, if for no other reason, due to the impressive roster of artists whom he managed and recorded.


The solid "Good Doing Daddy" by singer Big Boy Teddy Edwards is typical of small group Chicago blues recordings from the mid 1930s and features the accompaniment of Black Bob on piano as well as Big Bill Broonzy and (possibly) Papa Charlie Jackson on guitars. "Hollywood Stomp" finds Victoria Spivey performing a showbiz-themed number with a piano-trumpet-clarinet-bass backing, while the drums on pianist-vocalist Curtis Jones' "Blues and Trouble" add a distinctly modern touch to this side from 1937. "Brownskin Woman Swing," on the other hand, hearkens back to an earlier time, with Jacksonville, Mississippi native Roosevelt Scott (accompanied by Jesse "Monkey Joe" Coleman among others) belting out a song that is similar to a piece that Blind Blake recorded as "That'll Never Happen No More" in 1927. The inclusion of washboard and harmonica help make "Miss Ora Lee Blues" one of the most downhome-sounding things that Memphis Slim (nee Peter Chatman) ever recorded. Although Brownie McGhee was never part of the city's blues pantheon, he did record a number of sides in Chicago, including the worthwhile "Born for Bad Luck." In case you're wondering, that's Jordan Webb - not Sonny Terry - playing harmonica. Despite the fact that it's been featured on a million of those Drugs and Blooze comps, it never hurts to hear Champion Jack Dupree's "Weed Head Woman" one more time. There's more good piano blues on "15 Cents a Day" (take notice of those drums again) by Roosevelt Sykes and a return to the Mississippi Delta on "Crawlin' King Snake" by Tony Hollins, who was an underacknowledged influence on John Lee Hooker. Vocalist Peter Cleighton (nee Clayton) achieved greater success recording as "Doctor Clayton" for Bluebird, but "Confessin' the Blues," recorded for OKeh, is still an interesting cover version of the Jay McShann composition with accompaniment by Blind John Davis on piano and either Robert Lockwood, Jr. or Big Bill Broonzy on guitar. "I Am Sailin'" and "Just Had to Holler" respectively showcase the talents of veteran blueswoman Memphis Minnie and then-husband Ernest "Little Son Joe" Lawlars (whose singing style sounds like it had been strongly influenced by his spouse's) on these compelling guitar duets from 1941. Despite the fact that Big Bill Broonzy's days as king of the Chicago blues were winding down when "I Can't Write" was waxed in 1946, the song's R&B-like arrangements show that he was still open to experimentation with new styles and accompanists. Merline "the Yas Yas Girl" Johnson saw her popularity peak in the late 1930s and early 1940s, after the era of classic female blues singers ended with the close of the 1920s. "Bad Whiskey Blues," recorded during her only postwar session, is very much in the same vein as her earlier releases. Johnny Shines and Muddy Waters' tracks from 1946, which were unreleased at the time, supply the listener with examples of how Chicago blues was affected by newly-arrived black immigrants from Mississippi and the Deep South during World War II and immediately afterward. Returning to a stripped-down format, Melrose recorded Shines accompanied only by a second guitarist (probably Big Bill) and an unknown drummer. "Delta Pine Blues" and "Ride, Ride Mama" have their virtues, but "Tennessee Woman Blues" and "Evil-Hearted Woman Blues" are especially memorable for their tangible Robert Johnson influences ("Terraplane Blues" and "Kindhearted Woman Blues," respectively). Muddy's trio of songs - which also include pianist James Clarke, probably Baby Face Leroy Foster on second guitar, and an unknown rhythm section - sound very similar to his earliest efforts for Aristocrat, although he had yet to establish a recognizable style of his own at this early stage in his career. With hindsight, "Jitterbug Blues," "Hard Day Blues," and "Burying Ground Blues" suggest that even better things were on the horizon despite Melrose's failure to see their commercial potential and ultimate decision to keep them in the can. Waters, of course, re-recorded the latter two titles after signing a deal with the Chess brothers not long afterward. The eight cuts by Big Joe Williams that conclude OKeh Chicago Blues suitably bring matters to a conclusion as they simultaneously manage to be both backward-looking in terms of inspiration and forward-looking in terms of presentation. Even though Williams was over-recorded after his rediscovery by folkies in the late 1950s-early 1960s, the listener will be hard pressed to find other postwar recordings of his that exceed these in terms of power and emotional intensity. It is unfortunate that bassist Ransom Knowling and drummer Judge Lawrence Riley often drown out his mesmerizing nine-string guitar, but that shortcoming is rectified by John Lee "Sonny Boy No. 1" Williamson's awe-inspiring harmonica work throughout the performances. Several selections - including "P Vine Blues," "Banta Rooster Blues," "Mean Step Father Blues" and "Don't You Leave Me Here" (a retitled definitive version of "Baby Please Don't Go") - were inspired by
Williams' earlier Charlie Patton-derived 78s, while "Bad and Weak Hearted Blues," "I'm a Highway Man," and "House Lady Blues" explore familiar blues themes. A rousing take on "King Biscuit Stomp," the signature song of the "King Biscuit Time" radio show, was recorded as a bit of payback to Aleck "Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2" Miller, who had misappropriated Sonny Boy Williamson No. 1's name for broadcasts of the aforementioned program and, ultimately, for his recording career.


1. Good Doing Daddy
(previously unissued) - Big Boy Teddy Edwards
2. Hollywood Stomp - Victoria Spivey & Her Chicago Four
3. Blues and Trouble (previously unissued) - Curtis Jones
4. Brownskin Woman Swing - Roosevelt Scott
5. Miss Ora Lee Blues - Peter Chatman & His Washboard Band
6. Born for Bad Luck - Brownie McGhee
7. Weed Head Woman - Champion Jack Dupree
8. 15 Cents a Day - Roosevelt Sykes (The Honey Dripper)
9. Crawlin' King Snake - Tony Hollins
10. Confessin' the Blues - Peter Cleighton
11. I Am Sailin'
(previously unissued) - Memphis Minnie
12. Just Had to Holler
(previously unissued) - Little Son Joe (Ernest Lawlars)
13. I Can't Write
(previously unissued) - Big Bill & His Rhythm Band
14. Bad Whiskey Blues
(previously unissued) - The Yas Yas Girl (Merline Johnson)
15. Tennessee Woman Blues
(previously unissued) - Johnny Shines
16. Delta Pine Blues
(previously unissued) - Johnny Shines
17. Ride, Ride Mama
(previously unissued) - Johnny Shines
18. Evil-Hearted Woman Blues
(previously unissued) - Johnny Shines
19. Jitterbug Blues
(previously unissued) - Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield)
20. Hard Day Blues
(previously unissued) - Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield)
21. Burying Ground Blues
(previously unissued) - Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield)
22. P Vine Blues - Big Joe Williams
23. Bad and Weak Hearted Blues
(previously unissued) - Big Joe Williams
24. King Biscuit Stomp
- Big Joe Williams
25. I'm a Highway Man
- Big Joe Williams
26. Banta Rooster Blues
- Big Joe Williams
27. Mean Step Father Blues
(previously unissued) - Big Joe Williams
28. House Lady Blues
- Big Joe Williams
29. Don't You Leave Me Here
- Big Joe Williams


  1. vinyl rip password record-fiend.blogspot.com

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  2. thx fiend! tiz kinda funny, but it's becoming more apparent that some recordings, whilst seemingly ubiquitous & commonplace to the connoiss-ears, really haven't received much flavourful exposure outside of small digging circles, a few movies & maybe a blurb here & thar by some hipster, making learning institutions like this one owl the more indispensable. i recall a similar disclaimer with that superlative yazoo gospelarian joint you dropped recently, but in my recent experience, i've found there's really no need to appeal to jaded sensibilities to justify posting something great. just cuz it seems like olde news to us prolly means we're sorta responsible for breathing new life into the schtuff for the vast majority who somehow still aint familiar, a quality you possess in spades. likewise i'm betting the majority of yer 'followers' aint blues scholars/collectors & i certainly don't claim to be, but i for one really appreciate this drop brother! okeh? :)

  3. owl,

    Words fail me in response to your heartfelt comments, so I'll just let them speak for themselves. Thanks, man.


  4. Hokey Smokes Bullwinkle!!
    you're doing some mighty swell riffs and runs...keep on chooglin
    so happy to have found your site!


  5. Hey Fiend...

    I had this album growing up & learned how to bend notes on harmonica by playing along to this album. I've been looking for it for years (not a serious collector, just a fan...) and was so happy to find this here. I tried to download it but it keeps saying the compression failed. Any idea how I can get a rip of this? I'd love to hear it again... my dad got it for me when I was 7 and I lost the vinyl sometime during my teenage years. Any help in this matter would be very appreciated. Many thanks!

  6. Just listened start to finish! Great all the way through....a cracker...I thank you

  7. I love to hear the crisp vinyl sound thanks,..dowoOpzz