Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother - Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order 1929-1936 (Document, 1992)


By request.

I remember getting this CD from the Down Home Music Store in El Cerrito, California about 14 years ago not exactly knowing what to expect. I was aware that Blind Roosevelt Graves was a black musician from Mississippi and a contemporary of the prewar bluesmen of that state, but I don't think that I had even heard any of his recordings prior to my purchase. At the time, my modus operandi for acquiring this type of music included buying every Yazoo LP and CD that I could get my hands on. If I really liked a particular artist, I then obtained his or her Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order on the Document label when possible. However, during the mid 1990s, Graves' sides did not appear on any Yazoo releases (if I remember correctly), so I'm pretty sure that it was legendary blues historian Paul Oliver's description of the singer-guitarist's music in Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records that piqued my curiosity and inspired me to seek out this collection. I must admit that I did not immediately take to this CD; compared to the intense music of Delta blues artists, this material seemed anarchic and lacking drive. But over time, I acquired the taste that made it possible to appreciate these performances, and I'm glad that I gave this album a second chance.


Not surprisingly, very little is known about Roosevelt Graves, and what we do know is a result of Gayle Dean Wardlow's scholarship. Hailing from southeastern Mississippi, Graves was born in 1909 without the ability to see, leaving him with few career options as a disabled African American in the pre-Civil Rights-era South. By his teens, he was a 12-string guitar playing street musician performing with his half-blind brother and guide Aaron (not Uaroy, as has often been reported), who backed him on tambourine and harmony vocals. H.C. Spier, the noted talent broker from Jackson, apparently played a role in securing recording sessions for "Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother," as they were dubbed, first with Paramount in 1929 and later with ARC in 1936.

BLIND ROOSEVELT GRAVES' DEATH CERTIFICATE
(CLICK TO ENLARGE)

These sides present the listener with an opportunity to hear what the little-documented music of prewar Southern juke joints and black religious revival meetings sounded like. As street musicians, the Graves brothers had to be conversant in both secular and sacred songs. But what really makes these performances distinctive is the ensemble format in which they were recorded. Pianist Will Ezell, who worked for Paramount as a session musician and scout in addition to being a recording artist in his own right, essentially supervised the 1929 session, which also featured the talents of cornetist Baby Jay, an associate of his. The combination of guitar, tambourine, piano, and cornet gives these tunes a unique sound whether the material in question is blues ("St. Louis Rambler Blues," "New York Blues," "Staggerin' Blues," "Low Down Woman," and "Sad Dreaming Blues"), dance material ("Guitar Boogie," "Bustin' the Jug," and "Crazy About My Baby"), or gospel ("Take Your Burdens to the Lord," "Telephone to Glory," "I Shall Not Be Moved," "When I Lay My Burdens Down," "Happy Sunshine," and "I'm Pressing On"). As Ken Romanowski mentions in the booklet notes, several of the songs were based on race hits from earlier in the 1920s: "Guitar Boogie" being inspired by "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie," "Crazy About My Baby" by "Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues," and "Bustin' the Jug" by the Hokum Boys' "Selling That Stuff." Furthermore, he cites other renditions of the gospel material - versions of "When I Lay My Burdens Down" (aka "Glory Glory, Hallelujah") by Lonnie McIntorsh and Mother McCollum, "Telephone to Glory" (as "The Royal Telephone") by Rev. Sister Mary Nelson, "Take Your Burdens to the Lord" (aka "Leave It There") by Blind Willie Johnson and Washington Phillips, and "I Shall Not Be Moved" by Charlie Patton - that compare favorably with the Graves brothers' interpretations presented here.


RE-RELEASE OF "TAKE YOUR BURDENS TO THE LORD"
ON PARAMOUNT'S BUDGET IMPRINT BROADWAY (NOTE THE
CHANGE IN THE PERFORMERS' NAMES ON THE LABEL)

The remaining titles were recorded seven years later, but find Roosevelt and Aaron performing in a manner very similar to their previous session. Cooney Vaughn - a musician from Meridian, Mississippi who was equally skilled at performing both blues and pop material - handles the piano playing and, with the absence of a horn player this time around, completes the ensemble. On all but one of these six sides, ARC presented them as the "Mississippi Jook Band," which Romanowski identifies as the only instance in which "recorded prewar black artists (used) the term." In contrast to the material from 1929, the sound quality on these performances is quite good and allows the listener fully to appreciate the Graves' outstanding vocal skills and especially Aaron's spirited tambourine playing. As before, the tunes are split between gospel songs ("Woke Up This Morning" [on which they were billed as "Roosevelt Graves And Brother: Sacred Singing"] and "I'll Be Rested") and secular music (the irresistible dance instrumentals "Hittin' the Bottle Stomp," "Skippy Whippy," "Dangerous Woman," and "Barbecue Bust," with the last number featuring kazoo and scat singing), both done with equal proficiency. "These recordings," according to Gayle Dean Wardlow, "have been described by (author) Robert Palmer as possessing the rhythmic elements that were to influence the beginning of the 1950s rock 'n' roll era. However, the prominence of the piano and guitar on these Jook Band sides can also be heard on the Paramount performances with cornet seven years earlier."

So there you have it: songsters who performed blues, gospel, and proto-rock 'n' roll. 'Nuff said.

1. St. Louis Rambler Blues
2. Guitar Boogie
3. New York Blues
4. Bustin' the Jug
5. Crazy About My Baby
6. Staggerin' Blues
7. Low Down Woman
8. Take Your Burdens to the Lord (15645-Pm 12874)
9. Take Your Burdens to the Lord (15645-A-Cr 3326)
10. Telephone to Glory
11. I Shall Not Be Moved
12. When I Lay My Burdens Down
13. Happy Sunshine
14. I'm Pressing On
15. Sad Dreaming Blues
16. Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)
17. Hittin' the Bottle Stomp
18. Skippy Whippy
19. Dangerous Woman
20. I'll Be Rested (When the Roll Is Called)
21. Barbecue Bust

Monday, August 30, 2010

Johnny Darrell - With Pen in Hand (United Artists, 1968)


By request.

I'll have to be honest and admit that I'm posting the review of this album not because it's one of my favorites, but as a result of someone asking me to do so. Put simply, With Pen in Hand is the most lackluster album that Johnny Darrell recorded during his tenure with United Artists in the 1960s. That said, I'm such a big fan of this criminally underrated country singer that I can still derive enjoyment from some of the cuts featured here, especially when his magnificent voice transcends the often-less-than-inspiring lyrics and/or arrangements. But even someone as talented as Darrell can't turn all of these lemons into lemonade.

A POMPOUS-LOOKING DON TWEEDY IN THE MIDDLE FLANKED BY
JOHNNY DARRELL (L) AND PRODUCER BOB MONTGOMERY (R)

The biggest problem with this LP is the fact that producer Bob Montgomery seemed intent on making it a thoroughly countrypolitan endeavor, which did not play to the singer's strengths. Not that Darrell was incapable of handling a sensitive song - just the opposite, in fact. However, when he did cover such material on previous albums, the performances still possessed at least a bit of a rough edge or some downhome twang. Such characteristics are regrettably all but absent on With Pen in Hand's 11 songs. Much of the blame can be assigned to arranger Bob Tweedy, whose superfluous strings often threaten to drown the already sentimental performances in syrupy instrumental bathos.


JOHNNY'S DAUGHTER LISA HELPS HIM SELECT A RECORD (HOPEFULLY, IT'S
AS LONG AS THE WINDS BLOW OR RUBY, DON'T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN)

Predictably, country music listeners in the 1960s embraced this LP's title track more than they had any other of Darrell's more lyrically adventurous singles, helping send it to the #3 position on the C&W charts in 1968 and giving him his biggest commercial success. Although it's my least favorite of his hits, "With Pen in Hand" does have a certain orchestrated grandeur to it, and I guess that Tweedy's arrangements aren't so bad on this tune. The same can be said about the decent versions of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Crying" that appear on this record. However, the conductor's heavy-handed touch on "Poetry of Love," "How Little Men Care," "Child of Clay," "Little Things," and "Honey" steer these performances dangerously close to easy-listening territory. Nevertheless, they probably would make for good elevator music in Nashville office buildings. Sonny Curtis provides the arrangements on the remaining tracks and takes more of a folk-country approach, much to my relief. Other than the appealing "Destiny's Child" (Curtis' own composition), however, the song selection is not the most imaginative. "Gentle on My Mind" and "I Fought the Law" are both fine enough but suffer a bit from their overfamiliarity.

In short, a waste of the man's talent.


JOHNNY DARRELL DOES "WITH PEN IN HAND" ON TV -
AND IT'S ACTUALLY NOT LIP-SYNCHED

1. With Pen in Hand
2. Destiny's Child
3. By the Time I Get to Phoenix
4. Poetry of Love
5. Gentle on My Mind
6. How Little Men Care
7. Child of Clay
8. I Fought the Law
9. Little Things
10. Honey
11. Crying

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Big Road Blues - The Real Thing from Mississippi 1951-1967 (Home Cooking/Collectables, 1992)


Despite being a somewhat haphazardly compiled affair, Big Road Blues - The Real Thing from Mississippi 1951-1967 contains some first-rate downhome Mississippi blues recordings from the 1950s and 1960s by lesser-known musicians of the genre. I use the term "haphazardly" because even though this CD more or less focuses on artists from the Jackson-Crystal Springs corridor of central Mississippi, there really isn't anything that stylistically or thematically connects all of the performances. (I should also mention that Roosevelt Holts, the subject of the cover photo, does not appear anywhere on this album as far as I can tell.) Approximately half of the tracks were originally waxed during the 1950s for small labels located in Jackson, the state capital, while the remainder were recorded by Marc Ryan and ethnomusicologist David Evans in 1967 while the latter was conducting research for what would eventually become the similarly-titled book, Big Road Blues: Tradition & Creativity in the Folk Blues.


A variation of the standard "Catfish Blues" is the lone recording by the mysterious Bobo Thomas, a guitarist who was an associate of Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2. The harmonica player had been enjoying success with his releases on Trumpet Records, which was owned by Lillian McMurray. At his behest, she agreed to arrange a session in 1951 on which he backed Thomas. However, before the bluesman could return to the studio to record additional material, he left town with a guitar and amplifier that had been lent to him by the label and wound up in jail for several months until McMurray bailed him out. In the meantime, Trumpet released "Catfish" as the B-side to Elmore (then referred to as "Elmo") James' first version of "Dust My Broom." The slide guitarist was erroneously given credit for this performance, which explains why it often turns up on poorly-researched Elmore James anthologies. I'm partial to Robert Petway's version of "Catfish Blues," but this atmospheric rendition definitely has its merits. Play it with the lights turned off for full effect.

MAGER JOHNSON

Delta Records, another small Jackson-based label, was essentially a hobby for its owner, Jimmie Ammons, who recorded not only blues singers, but country and rockabilly artists as well. This CD's booklet notes contain very little information about these sides, and the small amount of data presented is mostly incorrect. Based on my own research and the sound quality of the performances, my educated guess is that tracks 2,3, 8, 9, and 10 represent material that was released by Delta. Although I'm not sure when they were recorded, it seems logical that it would have been sometime during the 1950s. Not to be confused with Little Milton Campbell, Little Milton Anderson was another postwar Mississippi blues figure about which very little is known. His engagingly sloppy harmonica occasionally gets drowned out on the boisterous, almost rock 'n' roll instrumental cuts "Blow It Down" and "Jackson Jook," both of which were credited to Little Milton's Juke Band. I hear an electric guitarist, pianist, and saxophonist in the mix as well, but who they are is anybody's guess. He is joined by a guitarist (presumably Eddie White) and a drummer on another instrumental, "Little Milton's Boogie," and on the lowdown vocal performance "Mistreated Baby Blues." The marginally improved sound quality suggests that these sides may have been recorded at a later date than the other two. The moody solo guitar piece "Packin' up My Blues" is reminiscent of Big Boy Spires' early 1950s work for Chess Records, although Tommy Lee Thompson's voice is not as gruff. He would later go on to record with King Mose's Royal Rockers and Sam Myers.

CAREY "DITTY" MASON (L) & HOUSTON STACKHOUSE

The best performances on this CD belong to guitarists Houston Stackhouse and Carey "Ditty" Mason. Stackhouse was intriguing in that his style was rooted in prewar Mississippi blues, but he fully embraced electric guitars and amplification. His primary influence was Tommy Johnson, and Houston would in turn go on to mentor his cousin, Robert Nighthawk, whose guitar playing displayed noticeable similarities to that of his kin. As with Stackhouse, Carey Mason hailed from Crystal Springs, which was the hometown of the aforementioned Johnson. Having grown up in the same musical environment, the duo's fretwork complements each other perfectly as can be heard on "Mercy Blues" (which features some really nice slide guitar), "Few Clothes," the instrumental "Boogie," "I Hate to Hear My Good Gal Call My Name," an obligatory rendition of "Big Road Blues," "Talkin' 'Bout You" (with Stackhouse possibly switching over to harmonica), and "That's Alright" (a song that sounds equal parts Big Boy Spires and Robert Nighthawk). During Ryan and Evans' research, they also recorded Tommy Johnson's younger brother, Mager (pronounced "may-jur"), who had stayed behind in Crystal Springs after his elder sibling had become a successful race record artist and relocated to Jackson. Not surprisingly, his performing style is similar to Tommy's, and "Traveling Blues" bears similarities to "Big Fat Mama Blues," although his singing voice is not as magnificent.

1. Catfish Blues - Bobo Thomas & Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2
2. Blow It Down - Little Milton's Juke Band
3. Jackson Juke
- Little Milton's Juke Band
4. Mercy Blues - Houston Stackhouse & Carey "Ditty" Mason
5. Few Clothes
- Houston Stackhouse & Carey "Ditty" Mason
6. Boogie - Houston Stackhouse & Carey "Ditty" Mason
7. Traveling Blues - Mager Johnson
8. Little Milton's Boogie - Little Milton Anderson & Eddie White
9. Mistreated Baby Blues - Little Milton Anderson & Eddie White
10. Packin' up My Blues - Tommy Lee Thompson
11. I Hate to Hear My Good Gal Call My Name
- Houston Stackhouse & Carey "Ditty" Mason
12. Big Road Blues
- Houston Stackhouse & Carey "Ditty" Mason
13. Talkin' 'Bout You
- Houston Stackhouse & Carey "Ditty" Mason
14. That's Alright
- Houston Stackhouse & Carey "Ditty" Mason

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Clifford Hayes and the Louisville Jug Bands - Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Vol. 2 (1926-1927) (RST, 1994)


Although the state of Kentucky is not typically associated with African-American music, the city of Louisville boasted a thriving jug band scene during the early 20th century. Fans of prewar blues might be more familiar with groups from Tennessee such as the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon's Jug Stompers, but these outfits' counterparts from the Bluegrass State predated them and served as their inspiration. While any unit that features a stoneware or glass jug player can qualify as a jug band, jug band music itself is not as easily defined. Such aggregations typically operated as street musicians, which required a broad repertory in order to satisfy the diverse requests of passers-by. As a result, musicians in these outfits had to be sophisticated enough to perform jazz, earthy enough to play blues, and resourceful enough to comply with requests for pop songs by both black and white onlookers.

STILL FROM A 1930 NEWSREEL FEATURING WHISTLER (WITH
GUITAR
ON FAR LEFT) AND HIS JUG BAND - WILLIE BLACK
(SECOND FROM LEFT)
AND THREE UNKNOWN JUG BLOWERS

Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Vol. 2 (1926-1927) continues chronicling the Louisville jug band scene's 1920s golden age. The first dozen tracks were waxed in 1926 by the city's best-known group, the Dixieland Jug Blowers, which featured two prominent musicians, jug blower Earl McDonald and violinist Clifford Hayes. Rounding them out were saxophonist-vocalist Lockwood Lewis (a former associate of W.C. Handy), second jug player Henry Clifford (whose real name may have been Henry Smith), and a triumvirate of banjoists: Emmett Perkins, Curtis Hayes (Clifford's brother?), and Cal Smith. The second take of "Boodle-Am-Shake" (the first is available on Vol. 1) and "Skip, Skat, Doodle-Do" are delightful bits of hokum, with "Florida" being a fine wordless blues. "Don't Give All My Lard Away" provides less salacious comic relief, while the tour de force "Banjoreno" displays the musicians' instrumental prowess to excellent effect. "Louisville Stomp" sounds like a dance number that would have been popular with black and white audiences. McDonald's humorous spoken-word bit in "House Rent Rag" parodies a church sermon and provides commentary on women's fashion in the 1920s among other things before the band launches into the performance itself. That's the legendary Johnny Dodds who can be heard playing clarinet, and his contributions on "Memphis Shake" as well as the multiple takes of "Carpet Alley Breakdown" and "Hen Party Blues" help give these instrumentals a pronounced hot jazz flavor.

DIXIELAND JUG BLOWERS CIRCA 1926 - (FRONT L TO R): PROBABLY LEWIS &
McDONALD W/CLIFFORD HAYES ON VIOLIN
(REAR L TO R): BANJOISTS WHO
ARE PROBABLY PERKINS, HAYES, & SMITH (UNKNOWN WHICH ONE IS WHICH)

Despite his significant skill as a violinist, Hayes earned a bad reputation from unscrupulous activities such as keeping a disproportionate amount of earnings from performances and recording sessions. As a result, McDonald assembled a different cast of musicians for the next eight tracks, which were recorded a year later. In addition to the juggist, the Original Louisville Jug Band included Ben Calvin on mandolin, Lucien Brown on saxophone, and holdover Cal Smith on banjo. Their discography features interesting variations of "In the Jailhouse Now" and "Steamboat Bill" (a ballad about a celebrated Mississippi River paddle steamer pilot), respectively titled "She's in the Graveyard Now" and "Casey Bill," the latter of which may have resulted from the popularity of the "Casey Jones" family of songs. "Louisville Special," "Mama's Little Sunny Boy," "She Won't Quit but She'll Slow Down," and "Melody March Call" are all impressive instrumentals that convincingly demonstrate the viability of a smaller jug band lineup. "Rocking Chair" distinguishes itself as the outfit's lone straight-ahead blues number, and "Under the Chicken Tree" is a coon song thrown in for good measure.


FULL-LENGTH PERFORMANCE OF WHISTLER AND HIS JUG
BAND FROM AFOREMENTIONED 1930 NEWSREEL DOING "TEAR
IT DOWN, BED SLATS AND ALL" (AKA "FOLDIN' BED")

As far as I'm concerned, Whistler (Buford Threlkeld) and His Jug Band's four sides from 1927 are the most compelling titles on this CD. While the Hayes and McDonald-led groups display an urban and sometimes lighter touch, I prefer the more raucous nature of these closing tracks. Threlkeld sang in addition to playing guitar and nose whistle and was backed by Willie Black on tenor banjo, Jess Ferguson on violin, and Rudolph Thompson on jug. "Low Down Blues" is aptly named and perhaps the finest selection on this album. "The Vamps of '28'" finds the group doing an interpretation of a song that was called "Vampire Women" by other blues artists, with the popularity of the slang term "vamp" (i.e. seductress) at the time accounting for the name change. The final two cuts, "The Jug Band Special" and "Pig Meat Blues," are wonderfully infectious instrumental performances.

1. Boodle-Am-Shake (take 2) - Dixieland Jug Blowers
2. Florida Blues
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
3. Don't Give All My Lard Away
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
4. Banjoreno
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
5. Skip, Skat, Doodle-Do
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
6. Louisville Stomp - Dixieland Jug Blowers
7. House Rent Rag
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
8. Memphis Shake
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
9. Carpet Alley Breakdown (take 1)
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
10. Carpet Alley Breakdown (take 2)
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
11. Hen Party Blues (take 1)
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
12. Hen Party Blues (take 2)
- Dixieland Jug Blowers
13. She's in the Graveyard Now - Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band
14. Casey Bill
- Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band
15. Louisville Special
- Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band
16. Rocking Chair Blues
- Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band
17. Mama's Little Sunny Boy
- Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band
18. She Won't Quit but She'll Slow Down
- Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band
19. Under the Chicken Tree
- Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band
20. Melody March Call
- Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band
21. Low Down Blues - Whistler and His Jug Band
22. The Vamps of "28"
- Whistler and His Jug Band
23. The Jug Band Special
- Whistler and His Jug Band
24. Pig Meat Blues
- Whistler and His Jug Band

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ebony Rhythm Band - Soul Heart Transplant: The LAMP Sessions (Stones Throw, 2004)


Contrary to today's prevailing view about the decade, it was not necessarily a good thing to be an ahead-of-the-time musician during the 1960s, especially if you were black and living in a provincial Midwestern city such as Indianapolis. Naptown does have a rich African American musical heritage, with notable figures including bluesmen Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell as well as jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, to name but a few. Although Funk, Inc. was probably the most famous band in the city's thriving late 1960s-early 1970s funk scene, there were many lesser-known outfits who were also musically compelling but recorded only a single or two before fading away into obscurity. The Ebony Rhythm Band was one such group. Their fondness for mind-expanding rock music is apparent on the sides collected on Soul Heart Transplant. And while this influence prevented them from being well-received in black nightclubs where patrons had more traditional tastes in music, it did help distinguish them as an extremely innovative unit for their time.

HERB MILLER (STANDING THIRD FROM LEFT IN SKINNY TIE) WITH
THE FIRST GROUP HE MANAGED, THE HIGHLIGHTERS, CIRCA 1967

The group's history is somewhat convoluted, so I'll leave it to you to peruse the scanned liner notes for the full details. Its members comprised the personnel of what was essentially the house band for LAMP (Layden and Miller Productions), a small label set up by entrepreneur Herb Miller. This businessman got his start as a record store owner and music distributor and, after becoming partners with boxing promoter Howard Layden, began signing local artists to recording contracts. Due to their instrumental chops, the Ebony Rhythm Band backed many of these performers during studio sessions.


EBONY RHYTHM BAND WITH THE KING JAMES VERSION, CIRCA 1971:
(STANDING L TO R): TOWNSEND, JOHNSON, TONY ROBERTS, RONALD
HENDRICK, & WATSON (KNEELING L TO R): JAMES "MOSES" WEEDIN,
JACKSON, SAM LITTLEBRIDGE, & VANCE "KING SOLOMON" DALTON

The aggregation's origins can be traced to the time when drummer Matthew Watson, originally in blues guitarist Harvey Cook's band, joined forces with guitarist Robert "Master Boobie" Townsend and organist John "Ricky" Jackson in soul singer Baby Leon's backing group sometime around 1967. Bassist Lester Johnson came into the fold the following year, and it was through his contacts that they became associated with LAMP Records. Initially, the rhythm section played as part of the rehearsal band for a group already signed to the label, the Vanguards. Johnson and Watson's contributions were so well received that all four musicians earned an audition with Miller, who was sufficiently impressed to make them his label's "Wrecking Crew," so to speak. After settling upon the name Ebony Rhythm Band, they not only provided accompaniment for the Vanguards, but also for other LAMP acts such as the Montiques and the Pearls. "It's Too Late for Love," "Fool Am I," and "Can I Call You Baby" are all presumably hitherto unissued backing tracks for songs by these aforementioned vocal groups.

LESTER JOHNSON, CIRCA 1971

Although ERB lacked a real vocalist, this did not prevent them from recording a significant amount of material (mostly instrumentals) in 1969 and 1970 under their own direction. Several of the titles featured here resulted from occasions when the engineer had left the tape running during jam sessions. As the liner notes explain,
The songs that the Band chose to record differed markedly from the solid, though traditional, R&B that they recorded for LAMP's vocal groups. "We were into R&B, but we were into it in a different sense," Lester offers. "We thought it was too confined. We listened to R&B stuff, but we were equally as into rock. We were fascinated by (wah-)wahs, distortion, that sort of thing." The Band chose songs by the Doors, Cream, and Blood, Sweat and Tears and covered them as might a soul jazz combo recording for Prestige or Blue Note.
Thus the inclusion of previously unreleased instrumental interpretations of period pieces "Light My Fire" and "Ode to Billie Joe" (which, curiously enough, were also both covered by contemporary black group Africa on Music from "Lil Brown") in addition to a medley of Vanilla Fudge themes titled - what else? - "Vanilla Fudge." "Get Yourself Together" is based on Traffic's "Smiling Phases" and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," although I can hear ERB quote the power trio's take on "Spoonful" in this performance as well. According to Watson,
"We was scorned. In that era, everybody else in the black community was wearing three-piece suits, processes and Afro wigs, and that shit. We was the first guys to wear bell-bottoms. The first guys to wear big hats. We were off into a whole other thing."
And Lester,
"We wanted more of a rock thing, and that's what we did. When we played these R&B gigs behind these stand-up vocal groups that wore costumes and danced routines, we used to laugh at them. We thought they were corny."
The Ebony Rhythm Band's lone 45 "Drugs Ain't Cool" b/w "Soul Heart Transplant" offers a tantalizing taste of what a full-length album by the group might have sounded like as both numbers put their collective influences on display. Believe it or not, the A-side was the winner in a contest held by the mayor of Indianapolis for the best anti-drug song, which netted the musicians $800 as well as the opportunity to perform in front of a municipal building in the city's downtown area. In what would have been a major disappointment to Nancy Reagan and the whole "Just Say No" crowd, the band apparently displayed a bit of hypocrisy by performing the song (influenced by the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man") while stoned on marijuana. This is a magnificent performance and in the same league as material by early Funkadelic, although admittedly not quite as far out. On "Soul Heart Transplant," ERB comes off as a Midwestern version of the Meters, especially due to Townsend's absolutely wicked guitar playing and Watson's impressive percussion work.

The members of the Ebony Rhythm Band continued performing live as the backing group for the Vanguards and the Pearls prior to heading to the West Coast in 1970 as part of the King James Version and then metamorphosing into the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign later in the decade.

(STANDING L TO R): RONNIE STEELE (MANAGER), TOWNSEND,
JACKSON, HENDRICK (TRUMPET), & JOHNSON (KNEELING L TO R):
DAN KASTINGS (ROADIE), TONY ROBERTS (VOCALS), & WATSON

1. Soul Heart Transplant - Ebony Rhythm Band
2. Light My Fire
- Ebony Rhythm Band
3. Ode to Billie Joe - Ebony Rhythm Band
4. Vanilla Fudge - Ebony Rhythm Band
5. Drugs Ain't Cool - Ebony Rhythm Band
6. Get Yourself Together (Smiling Phases-Sunshine of Your Love Medley) - Ebony Rhythm Band
7. It's Too Late for Love - The Vanguards
8. Fool Am I - The Montiques
9. Can I Call You Baby - The Pearls

Friday, August 20, 2010

Herbie Mann - The Wailing Dervishes (mono) (Atlantic, 1967)


As I had suggested in my post on Brute Force, wading through Herbie Mann's oeuvre can be a frustrating experience. Let's be honest - the guy released a lot of schlocky records in his lifetime, mostly due to poor judgment, bad taste, and a never-ending attempt to keep up with the latest musical trends, regardless of their artistic merits. Even though he averaged only one decent album for every four or five mediocre or bad ones, his more intriguing efforts were often outstanding, although not necessarily because of his own contributions. Indeed, even on these, his flute blowing often proves to be the least compelling part of the performances. It's the work of his sidemen that provides the majority of the musical pleasures on such albums. And like I said, exposure to these titles can lead to frustration for the record collector, who is left to wonder why more of Mann's LPs couldn't be as worthwhile.

MANN AND FLUTE

Among the flautist's best LPs is this live recording from 1967, The Wailing Dervishes, which is in some respects a follow-up to the previous year's Impressions of the Middle East and continues his experiments in fusing music from this part of the world with jazz and pop sounds. However, this is the more adventurous of the two albums since the in-concert setting allows the musicians more room to stretch out. John Berberian and bands like the Devil's Anvil and Kaleidoscope are correctly identified as trailblazers in wedding Middle Eastern music with rock 'n' roll. Unfortunately, Mann is often left out of such discussions. Since he was known to jump from style to style, perhaps some people questioned the sincerity of his interest in Middle Eastern music, leading to the relative obscurity of this album. Nevertheless, The Wailing Dervishes deserves mention for helping expose American audiences to sounds from Armenia, Turkey, and the Arab world and for presenting them in a context more suited for Western ears.



Recorded at the Village Theater in New York City (which would become the Fillmore East in 1968), this LP features five tracks, four of which are extended numbers that clock in at least seven minutes in length. For my money, the star of these proceedings is Charles "Chick" Ganimian, a criminally underrated Armenian-American oudist-vocalist and one of the first artists of his kind to incorporate progressive elements into his repertory of traditional music from his homeland. His oud solos throughout the album are absolutely brilliant and even better than his work on the aforementioned Impressions of the Middle East. Mann clearly held him in high regard, and rightfully so. The bandleader also recruited the superb dumbeg player Moulay "Ali" Hafid for this project, and his percussion work is quite simply amazing. Add Roy Ayers on vibraphone, Reggie Workman on bass, and Bruno Carr on drums, and you have one hell of a unique group, as demonstrated on the title track and "In the Medina." I'll admit that I'm not the biggest Beatles fan in the world, but I often like hearing covers of their songs by other artists. The ten-minute instrumental interpretation of "Norwegian Wood" really cooks and takes the composition in directions probably never envisioned by Lennon and McCartney. Guest musicians on this track include Hachig Kazarian on clarinet, Esber Koprucu on kanun, and Steve Knight (who was also a member of the Devil's Anvil and Mountain) on Fender bass. Ayers and the jazz rhythm section are absent from the beautiful traditional piece "Armenian Lullaby," which seems to be based on the same tune that John Berberian recorded as "Tranquility" on Middle Eastern Rock. As good as it is, the one cut that really doesn't seem to fit here is jazz bagpipist Rufus Harley's "Flute Bag," which must have been recorded at a different show entirely as it features Harley, Mann (as usual) on flute, Ayers on vibes, Oliver Collins on piano, James Glenn on bass, and Billy Abner on drums. Although the bagpipes add something of an exotic touch, there is nothing remotely Middle Eastern about this performance, and I'm not quite sure why it was included in the first place.

CHICK GANIMIAN CIRCA 1984

And for those of you who care about such things, this is a fairly scarce mono pressing of The Wailing Dervishes, so take note accordingly.

1. The Wailing Dervishes
2. Norwegian Wood
3. Flute Bag
4. In the Medina
5. Armenian Lullaby

Thursday, August 19, 2010

78 Quarterly Volume 1 - No. 5 (1990)


It's hard to believe that this - the fifth issue of 78 Quarterly - came out 20 years ago. As the music from the 1920s and 1930s in which it specializes recedes further and further in the rearview mirror, the earlier issues of this excellent publication are themselves becoming examples of vintage niche journalism from a bygone age. The early 1990s were a sort of golden age for this magazine, as issues were coming out regularly on an annual basis at that time. Although 78 never lived up to its ambitious name (i.e. the periodical was never published on a quarterly basis, i.e. every three months), its quality-over-quantity approach earned itself a permanent place in the hearts of prewar blues, hot jazz, and hillbilly music collectors around the world.


Things start off with the typically amusing "Letters to the Editor" section. If you think that you're an eccentric vinyl junkie, you don't have anything on these 78 collectors, which is demonstrated by their correspondence on pages 3-5. Trust me, no one can argue over minutiae like these guys. For example: the ongoing debate over the actual number of particular 78s in existence, who gets to pass judgment on what's rare and what isn't, Steve LaVere's gripes about not receiving proper credit for his contributions to the Robert Johnson article in issue No. 4, and other stuff like that. The next piece, a list of items for auction or trade from the collections of Gayle Dean Wardlow, Kip Lornell, and Pete Whelan, will make you salivate just from looking at it.

A SAMPLE OF HOWARD "LOUIE BLUIE" ARMSTRONG'S ARTWORK

Wardlow and Stephen Calt continue with the third installation of their series of articles on the history of Paramount Records. "The Buying and Selling of Paramounts" details the reasons why their records had such poor sound quality, the company's unique marketing strategies, and sales techniques utilized by wholesaler Harry Charles, among other things. Excerpts from The Paramount Book of the Blues and a sample of stationary featuring Paramount's letterhead are icing on the cake. The always controversial "78 Presents the Rarest 78s" focuses on jazz, country blues, piano, and string-jug-skiffle artists with names beginning with the letters E, F, and G this time around. I'll probably never own any of these records, but it's still fun to read about them. My favorite piece in this issue is the autobiographical feature "Louie Bluie: The Life and Music of William Howard Armstrong as told to Terry Zwigoff." As the noted director and record collector explains,
The following article was culled from some 30 hours of material recorded during the production of Louie Bluie, a one-hour film portrait of Howard Armstrong that I produced and directed back in 1985. The impetus to write this article grew from my frustration in not being able to include many of these stories in the finished film. (I now regret not making a 90-minute movie as I originally intended!) In writing this, I sometimes pieced together several different versions of the same incident, yet tried to preserve the flavor of Mr. Armstrong's own words throughout.
This wonderfully compelling story is further enhanced by the drawings of Armstrong, who was not only a superb blues fiddler, but an incredibly skilled artist as well. If you've already seen Louie Bluie, you already know that. However, this article will provide you with even more of his talent to appreciate.


Issue No. 5 marks the debut of another series of articles, "100 Years from Today," which annotator Doug Seroff introduces in the following fashion:
One hundred years ago, there was no music known as "blues," "jazz," or "gospel"; the term "ragtime" had not yet been coined. Nevertheless, there was a wealth of distinctive black folk and popular music. It was eclectic as any music could possibly be, and it contained the seeds of every music style that would presently emerge. There are no sound recordings to preserve the sounds of this era, but the black press had already begun to serve as a significant chronicler. Some inkling of the scope and variety, and a fair picture of the most successful manifestations of black entertainment in 1889 are preserved in press reportage. The following items appeared in the black community press from June through December of 1889.
The reprintings of such material contained in this analysis are nothing short of fascinating and provide the reader with a glimpse into a completely lost world.



Richard Spottswood's "When the Wolf Knocked on Victor's Door..." deals with how one record label survived the Great Depression and provides a discography of its releases from the early 1930s as well sales figures where available. The numbers are quite revealing. Tom Tsotsi supplies part three of his history of Gennett, whose race records are not as celebrated as those released by Paramount, but for the most part are just as artistically and culturally significant. "Portrait of a Blues Singer" by Stephen Calt is the first of a series of excerpts that would eventually be spun into the outstanding Skip James biography I'd Rather Be the Devil. The books is better since it's more cohesive, but these articles were revelatory when they first appeared. In "Six Who Made Recorded History (1926-1935)," Gayle Dean Wardlow supplies thumbnail portraits of obscure blues musicians John Byrd, Isiah "The Mississippi Moaner" Nettles, Sonny Scott, Freddie Spruell, Elvie Thomas, and Geeshie Wiley, with information gleaned from years of tireless research in the Deep South.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Spur - Spur Points (Record Fiend Special Products, 2010)


This year's best reissue of rock music from the 1960s? My vote goes to Spur of the Moments, which collects selected recordings by the pioneering Midwestern garage-country-psych rock band Spur. Hailing from Belleville, Illinois (located in the southwest corner of the state near St. Louis), the group recorded a lone LP released in 1968, Spur of the Moment, in addition providing musical accompaniment to Father Pat Berkery on his celebrated Christian mind-expanding spoken word album from the following year, Prayers for a Noonday Church. Released last month by the Drag City label, Spur of the Moments (note the "s" at the end to distinguish it from its predecessor) features three songs from Spur of the Moment in addition to eight other tracks (recorded by Spur and an earlier garage band version of the group, the Unknowns) that had been available only on 45 or were previously unreleased. A decidedly mixed bag, the record has received mostly positive reviews from the likes of Pitchfork, Piccadilly Records, and the Washington City Paper, to name but a few. The recurring criticism of the band - albeit a minor one - seems to be that they lacked a distinctive sound and did not transcend their diverse influences. Indeed, Spur of the Moments does sometimes seem as if the songs had been performed by several different groups. Instead of this counting against Spur, however, it can be viewed as a positive so long as the listener is not expecting a musical reinvention of the wheel. Historically-speaking, the outfit is a first-rate representation of the kind of groups that were popping up all around smalltown USA during the mid to late 1960s, bands that had to be on top of the latest musical trends in order to entertain their audiences at high school dances, pocket-sized concert halls, and county fairs. Most of these aggregations were fortunate if they had only the ability to perform competent cover versions of the big hits of the day. As Spur of the Moments convincingly demonstrates, Spur was not only capable of performing imaginative reworkings of songs by other bands (be sure to check out their epic-length interpretation of "Tribal Gathering" on Moments, for example) but could also compose and perform their own compelling material. But don't just take my word for it; buy the album, and listen for yourself. In this musically uninteresting era in which we live, groups like this sound downright inspirational.

EARLY DAYS AS THE UNKNOWNS (L TO R): ED KALOTEK, LARRY
WILSON (?), STAN BRATZKE, & RICK WILLARD CIRCA 1966-1967

As with most reissue projects, not every worthwhile performance could be included on the final product. However, thanks to the assistance of Record Fiend team members Vinylplastic and the north star grassman as well as Spur's bassist-vocalist Rick Willard, I am pleased to present you with a release that is exclusive to this blog, a band-sanctioned collection of intriguing odds and ends that I have decided to call Spur Points, which can be listened to as a sort of companion piece to Spur of the Moments. In some respects, it is more comprehensive than that release since it consists of selections by both Spur-related earlier bands (Derrel & the Unfillable Prescription [how's that for a name?!] and the aforementioned Unknowns), live cuts, demos, and the remaining tracks from the Spur of the Moment LP. The source material includes acetates and scratchy old 45s, so the sound quality is not always the best. Be that as it may, the historical importance - not to mention the overall musical excellence - of the performances more than makes up for any sonic shortcomings. I'm guessing that most of these tracks were recorded between 1964 and 1970 or so, but it's possible that some of them are from slightly earlier or later dates. Additionally, there may be instances where I have given credit to the incorrect band on a particular song. In other words, it is possible that I've listed a particular performance as something by the Unknowns when it was, in fact, done by Spur...and vice versa. If that is the case and someone has the correct information, please pass it along to me so I can I set the record straight.

PUBLICITY PHOTO FROM THE LATE 1960s (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT):
JIMMY FEY, STIX MAXWELL, STAN BRATZKE, ED KALOTEK, & RICK WILLARD

The first song was performed by Derrel & the Unfillable Prescription, a group that, as previously mentioned, included musicians who would later become Spur. "The Peoples' Cheer" is an organ-driven patriotic piece of garage rock, of which the band did not think very highly (see Rick Willard has to say about it below). The Unknowns' initial single, "You Want Me Too," reveals itself to be an appealing, jangly folk rocker with some really nice vocal harmonies. The first demonstration of the musicians' fixation with the Byrds, a respectable cover of "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," was featured as a B-side to one of their singles from 1966 or 1967, and spirited live versions of "The Wine Song" (a "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" variant?) and "Good Lovin'" provide examples of what they sounded like in concert during their formative years. "Baby's in Black" and "Mystery Train," both of which are probably among Spur's earliest recordings, respectively display the influence of the Beatles and Elvis on the group. Eight of the next nine tracks were included on Spur of the Moment and include another well-played cover ("River Deep"), a crazed medley of early rock classics complete with a whacked-out ending ("Rock Phase," with "Prelude" being a previously unreleased outtake), a bit of redneck gospel ("Turn to Jesus"), an extremely early example of drug-oriented country rock ("Don't Ever Trust a Woman with Your Dope," which was previously included on the 2001 comp Yee-Haw! The Other Side of Country)
, excellent minor-key folk rock ("Why Girl No. 2" and "Modern Error," with the latter being an updated take on "Modern Era," a 1966 single track by the Unknowns included on Spur of the Moments), and a couple of well-intentioned but not wholly successful attempts at broadening the band's musical horizons ("Tell Me, Tell Me" and "Stanley's Song"). The closing tracks are live recordings that further exhibit the musicians under the spell of the Byrds ("Mr. Spaceman" and the second and third parts of "Medley," which includes the relatively obscure "It Won't Be Wrong" and a revisitation of "Whole Lot Better") as well as, to a lesser degree, the Youngbloods ("Get Together," the first part of "Medley"). I'm not sure about the recording date for "Spaceman", but the longer track comes from a 1994 reunion concert (again, see Rick Willard's correspondence below.) The in-concert version of "Don't Ever Trust a Woman," however, does sound as if it dates from Spur's late-1960s prime.

PSYCHEDELIC SPUR (LEFT) IN CONCERT & JIMMY (RIGHT) DEMONSTRATES
THAT MORE THAN JUST CORN GROWS IN DOWNSTATE ILLINOIS

Spur are:

Stan Bratzke - vocals, electric and acoustic guitar
Jimmy Fey - vocals, six-string lead guitar
Ed Kalotek - keyboard, six-string and 12-string lead guitar
Stix Maxwell - drums and percussion
Rick Willard - vocals and bass


Addendum: Rick Willard was kind enough to drop me a line earlier this morning. He provided me with some information that corrects some mistakes I had made in the original version of this post:
In reviews of the Spur album I've noticed a lot of misconceptions and wrong info on our band. The biggest problem seems to be the difference between Spur and the Unknowns. They were, in fact, the same. Between 1965 and 1972 we had three different drummers, other than that, the lineup never differed. Larry Wilson was our drummer on our first three singles, "You Want Me Too", "Modern Era," and "All Over The World", all recorded as the Unknowns. Larry left the band amicably for personal reasons. We were fortunate to find another great drummer Stix Maxwell, who played on the original Spur of the Moment album and the Fr. Berkery album, Prayers for a Noonday Church. He was with us through 1969 and the first breakup of the band. In 1970, I moved to California for a year, then to Arizona for another year. In 1972, I returned to Illinois and we reformed the group, sans Stix Maxwell, who was gigging in Las Vegas. Our manager Ron Lipe had moved to Milwaukee and was managing Key/Charisma Recording studios. We picked up a drummer, Bill Eversole, and started making weekend trips to record. "Time Is Now," "We Don't Want to Know," "Help Me I'm Falling," and "Mr. Creep" were recorded during this time. The "Medley" you mentioned was actually done in 1994. It was our reunion concert and featured all original members except Ed Kalotek who had passed on. A long time friend, Randy Roberts, sat in for Ed on that occasion. The Unfillable Prescription was actually the entire Spur band whoring ourselves out as studio musicians to a songwriter of dubious distinction. We thought it was so lame, we didn't want to be associated with it, hence the name Unfillable Prescription was decided on. Sometimes we played places that were a bit of a downgrade because we needed the money. We used names such as "Doglips" or "The National Necrophilia Foundation" rather than "Spur." If you have any questions about the band or individual tracks, let me know. Thanks for your great review.

Peace,

Rick Willard

1. The Peoples' Cheer - Derrel & the Unfillable Prescription
2. You Want Me Too - The Unknowns
3. I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better - The Unknowns
4. The Wine Song (live) - The Unknowns (?)
5. Good Lovin' (live) - The Unknowns
6. Baby's in Black - Spur (?)
7. Mystery Train - Spur (?)
8. River Deep, Mountain High - Spur
9. Prelude to Rock Phase
- Spur
10. Rock Phase - Spur
11. Turn to Jesus - Spur
12. Don't Ever Trust a Woman with Your Dope
- Spur
13. Why Girl
No. 2 - Spur
14. Modern Error
- Spur
15. Tell Me, Tell Me
- Spur
16. Stanley's Song
- Spur
17. Medley: Get Together-It Won't Be Wrong-I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better (live)
- Spur
18. Mr. Spaceman (live)
- Spur
19. Don't Ever Trust a Woman with Your Dope
(live) - Spur

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sundaram Balachander - The Music of (Southern) India (Nonesuch, 1965)


I suppose that every newly turned-on record collector acquires at least a few albums of Indian music during his or her college days, if not earlier. I was no different, although I did make a conscious effort to buy recordings by lesser-known Subcontinental musicians in addition to the obligatory Ravi Shankar LPs for the purpose of broadening my horizons as much as possible. If memory serves me correctly, I purchased this item at the old Record Swap location on Green Street in Champaign, Illinois, back when it was a stone's throw away from campus and actually had a pretty good selection of vinyl in the bins. I didn't know who the hell "S. Balachander" was at the time, but the album sure looked interesting enough, especially since it was priced at only a dollar or two.



I'm a dabbler when it comes to this kind of stuff, so there isn't much that I can tell you that an ethnomusicologist couldn't tell you much a much better fashion, but I'll pass on some information that I gleaned from the liner notes all the same. The featured musician, Sundaram Balachander, hailed from Chennai (formerly Madras) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A musical child prodigy, he was a professional percussionist by age six and a concert sitarist by age 12. His knack for innovation was demonstrated by his ability to adapt the music of his southern homeland to the sitar, a northern Indian instrument. Around age 18, after serving as a regular on All India Radio for three years, Balachander developed a passion for another instrument, the veena, which the liners describe in the following fashion:
The stringed instrument (formerly non-fretted and later fretted) has gone through various stages of development from early times. The present highly developed form of the veena dates from the time of Govinda Dikshitar, who was a Prime Minister to King Raghunath of Tanjore in South India in the early seventeenth century. It is a 7-stringed instrument, four of the main ones on top for playing melody and the other three on the side providing drone or rhythmic accompaniment. The main body of the instrument is carved out of a single piece of wood, on the stem of which is fixed 24 brass frets on a waxy ledge. The veena is most popular in South India, enjoying there a sublime status as the "supreme" stringed solo instrument.
Describing
to the uninitiated how Balachander's playing style sounds is as difficult as telling someone who is not familiar with south Indian cuisine what sambar tastes like. Suffice it to say, he's very good. For those hearing a veena for the first time, the listener will note superficial similarities to the sitar but will quickly find that it possesses its own unique sonic characteristics. On all three performances (my favorite being the first, "Karpagame"), Balachander is accompanied by Umayalpuram Sivaraman on mridangam, a double-sided drum that is the region's counterpart to the tabla of northern India.

SUNDARAM BALACHANDER

Although this album can't decide whether its title is The Music of India or The Music of Southern India (the cover and spine are in disagreement with the liner notes and labels on both sides of the record), it otherwise bears all of the hallmarks of the Nonesuch Explorer series, one of the first serious attempts to catalogue world music sounds for globally-minded music collectors from the LP generation. The performances are expertly recorded and, with the shortest piece clocking in at just under ten minutes, obviously not truncated or watered down for casual consumption. Judging by the contents of the liners, this release - and all others on the Nonesuch imprint, for that matter - is intended for the person who is genuinely interested in cultures from other parts of the world. The notes go on to detail the defining traits of the south Indian system of Carnatic music, especially its religious and improvisational aspects, as well as to explain the respective melodic and rhythmic functions of the raga and the thalam, which are noted after each song title in the track listing for those of you properly educated in such matters.

UMAYALPURAM SIVARAMAN

1. Song - Karpagame / Ragam - Madhyamavathi / Thalam - Aadhi
2. Song - Neethumahima / Ragam - Hamsanandhi / Thalam - Aadhi
3. Song - Ammaravamma / Ragam - Kalyani / Thalam - Jampa

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Midnight at the Barrelhouse - Rockin' California Rhythm & Blues 1945-1951 (sic) (JSP, 2003)


A lot of people are under the misconception that rock 'n' roll was born the minute Elvis walked into Sun Studios in Memphis and recorded his interpretations of blues songs that had originally been done by black artists. If it were only that simple. The fact remains that Mr. Presley was the most photogenic and easily marketable of the emerging white rockabillies, although not necessarily the most talented, his great voice notwithstanding. Additionally, African American guitarists based out of Chicago such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were also instrumental to the emergence of the new genre, not to mention the contributions of vocal groups from the thriving doo-wop scenes of New York City and Philadelphia. As a result, there tends to be an emphasis on early rock 'n' roll musicians from the South, Midwest, and Eastern Seaboard at the expense of their counterparts on the West Coast who had also been recording groundbreaking material since the mid 1940s.

JOHNNY OTIS

The subtitle of Midnight at the Barrelhouse is a most appropriate one: Rockin' California Rhythm & Blues 1945-1951, even if the time span covered in this box set is actually 1945-1952. I say appropriate because the music featured on these discs, which originally appeared on releases by small independent labels such as Excelsior, Federal, Mercury, and Savoy, is stylistically between rock and blues and jazz, with many of the tracks featuring characteristics of all three. I've never cared much for the terms "R&B" and "rhythm and blues" since I feel that they were artificial designations created by the music industry in an effort specifically to target black record buyers even if the material recorded by contemporary white artists was essentially in the same bag. The main title is appropriate as well since it refers to the Barrelhouse, a popular Los Angeles bar during the 1940s and 1950s that featured the creme de la creme of the West Coast blues scene. This venue was co-owned by Johnny Otis (nee John Veliotes), the son of grocery store-owning Greek immigrants who was also a multi-instrumentalist (drums, vibes, and piano), singer, bandleader, arranger, disc jockey, and concert organizer. The life story of Otis is a fascinating one, and I highly recommend picking up a copy of the recently-published biography, the like-titled Midnight at the Barrelhouse. However, if budgetary constraints prevent you from adding this particular book to your home library, this excellent piece from one of my favorite sites, the Hound Blog, will more than suffice in providing you with a good background of the man since I have neither the time nor space to go into a detailed account of his numerous exploits.


In addition to his many other talents, Otis was an accomplished businessman as well. Not only were several of the musicians on this set backed by his percussion work or vibes playing, they also regularly performed at the Barrelhouse as part of the Johnny Otis Revue, which must have made things relatively easy in regard to promoting and booking the shows. Essentially, it was like having the vanguard of the West Coast blues scene as a house band. The amount of talent contained on these 125 performances is simply staggering: Jimmy Rushing, Bill Doggett, Ivie Anderson, Cathy Cooper, Joe Swift, Little Esther, the Robins, Redd Lyte, Mel Walker, Marylyn Scott, Linda Hopkins, Preston Love, and Pete "Guitar" Lewis, to name but a few. Disc A assembles recordings from 1945-1947, Disc B 1948-1950, Disc C 1950, Disc D 1950-1951, and Disc E 1951-1952. The stylistic variation can be accounted for by the importance of California as a migratory destination for many African Americans during the 1940s. Just as Chicago had been a magnet for many blacks from the Deep South throughout the earlier decades of the 20th century, the booming economy of the West Coast during World War II helped draw many blacks from states like Texas and Oklahoma during the early and mid 1940s. With factories pumping out military equipment around the clock, there were plenty of jobs for everybody. And as is often the case when there are massive population shifts, the musical culture of the migrants came with them as exemplified by the blues of T-Bone Walker and Lowell Fulson in addition to the dance music played by former members of territory bands that had toured the Southwest during the 1920s and 1930s. It is from these two sources that the rockin' blues of California originated.

DAD'S LITTLE HELPER: A YOUNG SHUGGIE OTIS PROVIDES
ASSISTANCE WHILE JOHNNY WORKS AS A DISC JOCKEY