Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I think that I instinctively start craving music from tropical lands around this time of year when the weather really starts to get lousy in Chicagoland, which partially explains why I pulled Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics from my CD shelves the other day. But in addition to that reason, I was also inspired by all of the fantastic hula bombs that fellow cultural archivist owlqaeda has recently dropped over at his excellent Holy Warbles blog. Not wanting to be left out of the slack key luau, I though that this would be the perfect item to bring to the musical feast.
Elements of Hawaiian music, including slack-key tuning methods and lap-style steel guitar (typically a National tricone), became popular with Americans around 1900, close to the time when the island group was annexed by the United States government. The influence of these innovations cannot be underestimated as they not only contributed to the creation of an entirely new genre that could be exploited by the recording industry but also were enthusiastically adopted by blues and country music instrumentalists in subsequent years. Even more fascinating are the elements of European music that had already been established in Hawaii by the time it became an American territory. In his booklet notes, Bob Brozman explains, "The entire 'tradition' of waltz and march music on the steel guitar can be traced to 1870 when King Kalakaua imported German band master Henry Berger to create a European-style 'royal band' for special events." When these facts are taken into consideration, one can see that this collection doesn't strictly focus on artists from Hawaii nor does it feature music that is purely Polynesian. Instead, these tracks demonstrate both the versatility of the islands' musicians as well as the extent to which Hawaiian-style steel guitar playing was effectively incorporated into various musical genres in the United States and other parts of the world during the early decades of the 20th century.
For the sake of organization, it's best to divide the artists and performances on Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics into several different categories. The first grouping consists of musicians that Bozman refers to as practitioners of the "hot 'moderne' swing style." Chief among these are the tracks by the king of Hawaiian steel guitar, the peerless Sol Hoopii, whose "Palolo" and "Hula Girl" reveal how much his style evolved during the seven years between which these sides were recorded. Kane's Hawaiians' sublime take on the former title warrants a listen especially for those into musical comparisons. Sol K. Bright, who was originally Hoopii's rhythm guitarist, demonstrates an approach similar to his mentor's on the irresistible Latin-tinged "La Rosita" and the equally compelling western-flavored "Hawaiian Cowboy." From a technical standpoint, "Huehue (Hawaiian Hula)" by Sam Ku West (pictured on the cover of the booklet for this CD) just might be the most awe-inspiring thing on here. Rounding out the quintet of hot players, the prolific King Bennie Nawahi - who, according to the booklet notes, had "a slightly more country feel than Hoopii" - chips in with three of his finest sides, "Honolulu Bound," "Black Boy Blues," and "Hawaiian Melody." Hawaiian steel guitar was so influential on early country musicians that it was not uncommon for some groups to feature not one but two such instruments in their lineup as demonstrated by Hoot Gibson's "Mai Givee" and "Na Mo Kueha." Little is known about the mysterious duo of Jim Holstein and Bob Kaai, better known as "Jim & Bob - The Genial Hawaiians," who display a western influence on "The Song of the Range" in addition to an aptitude for blues on "St. Louis Blues." The Kaai Serenaders' "Hula Shake That Thing" possibly features Bob with a different guitar-playing partner. In similar fashion, the effervescent "Spanish Shawl" is performed by the Three Jacks, a group whose only known member was guitarist Rodney Rogers. Additionally, the Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra, the unit responsible for the Hawaiiana-blues-jazz opus "Wabash Blues," included personnel that are also biographical blanks. Other tracks can be described as more traditionally Hawaiian in sound, including "Fort Street" by Madame Riviere's Hawaiians, the outstanding "Sassy" and "Lei E" by Kalama's Quartet, "Leilehua" by the Honolulu Players, and "Lepe Ulaula" by Sam Alama & His Hawaiians. Although a native Hawaiian (albeit of Portuguese ancestry) and considered to be the islands' first recorded musical star, Frank Ferera is generally not held in high regard by collectors of ethnic 78s. Bozman, however, does admit to the quality of "Melodias Populares Mexicana" and "Maui," which were respectively recorded under the pseudonymous group names Trio de Hawaii and Palakiko & Paaluhi late in the guitarist's career. In contrast, Roy Smeck was a multi-instrumentalist from the continental United States known for including steel guitar numbers in his performances. He's another one of those guys who vintage music enthusiasts often disparage - to wit, Bozman comments that "normally Smeck played like a man whose taste had been surgically removed" - although "Indiana March" (a strongly European-influenced piece) ranks among his best (i.e. unexcessive) recordings. Finally, there are two tracks on this CD that conclusively show the far-reaching impact that Hawaiian steel guitar had on musicians around the world. Amazingly enough, the Hawaiian Orchestra who waxed the beautiful "White Birds" was in fact a German group, while "Ticklin' the Strings" by the Mena Moeria Minstrels (a late-period acoustic steel guitar recording from 1955 that is the exception to the 1927-1938 rule established by the title of this CD) showcases the extraordinary talents of Indonesian guitarist Rudy Wairata.
1. Palolo - Sol Hoopii Trio
2. Fort Street - Madame Riviere's Hawaiians
3. Sassy - Kalama's Quartet
4. St. Louis Blues - Jim & Bob
5. Spanish Shawl - The Three Jacks
6. La Rosita - Sol K. Bright's Hollywaiians
7. Honolulu Bound - King Nawahi
8. Black Boy Blues - King Nawahi
9. Hawaiian Melody - King Nawahi
10. White Birds - Hawaiian Orchestra
11. Palolo - Kane's Hawaiians
12. Melodias Populares Mexicana - Trio de Hawaii
13. Maui - Palakiko & Paaluhi
14. Hula Girl - Sol Hoopii's Quartet
15. Leilehua - Honolulu Players
16. Wabash Blues - Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra
17. Lei E - Kalama's Quartet
18. Hawaiian Cowboy - Sol K. Bright's Hollywaiians
19. The Song of the Range - Jim & Bob
20. Indiana March - Roy Smeck's Tropical Serenaders
21. Huehue (Hawaiian Hula) - Sam Ku West
22. Mai Givee (Don't Give It Away) - Hoot Gibson
23. Lepe Ulaula - Sam Alama & His Hawaiians
24. Hula Shake That Thing - Kaai Serenaders
25. Na Moku Eha (The Four Islands) - Hoot Gibson
26. Ticklin' the Strings - Mena Moeria Minstrels
Friday, November 26, 2010
Not to take anything away from Bob Dylan, but people sometimes forget that his songs and performing style didn't just come out of thin air. Like any significant artist, he had many influences, with his efforts being a synthesis of other musicians' works combined with his own unique vision. One of the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman's most important mentors was Eric Von Schmidt, who obviously made quite an impression on the young Minnesotan prior to his professional breakthrough. So much so that Dylan offered tribute to him by dropping his name during the introduction to "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" on his eponymous Columbia debut as well as including a copy of this album, The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt, among the odds and ends on display in the cover photograph for the landmark Bringing It All Back Home LP.
Such accolades are completely appropriate considering Von Schmidt's importance to the postwar American folk revival. Indeed, his involvement in the movement goes back to at least the 1950s, which makes him an important transitional figure who acted as a bridge between the old guard from the 1930s and 1940s like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the Young Turks from early 1960s Greenwich Village. The remarkable thing about this important cross-pollinator was that he was seemingly everywhere in the scene but left behind a relatively scant recorded legacy for someone who cast such a long shadow. Much of this is attributable to the fact that Von Schmidt followed in the footsteps of his father Harold, a prolific illustrator for Saturday Evening Post magazine, as a successful artist, which meant that he could pursue his musical interests in a largely recreational fashion. I think that's a big part of the reason why I like this record so much. Unlike so many other white blues efforts, Von Schmidt does not fall into the pitfall of trying to sound overly earnest or authentic and making a pretentious ass of himself in the process. Instead, the listener can plainly hear that the tracks comprising his first LP were songs that he simply enjoyed playing for the sake of playing, which can often result in extraordinary things happening in the recording studio.
In spite of its title, The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt features a variety of material that also includes self-penned compositions, an Anglo-American ballad, calypso, a cowboy song, and gospel. Although the titles of many of these tracks will doubtlessly be familiar - and perhaps overly so to the jaded record collector - one must remember that such traditional numbers had been in this artist-musician's repertory since at least the 1950s, long before folk music became fashionable with mainstream white America. In addition to his own singing and guitar, mandolin, and harmonica playing, Von Schmidt is joined by Boston folk scene veterans Geoff Muldaur and Robert L. Jones on guitars and/or Fritz Richmond on washtub bass on several selections. "Crow Jane" is a capable reading of the East Coast blues standard, whereas "Gulf Coast Blues" relates Von Schmidt's maritime adventures in a boat built by his own hands during the mid 1950s while residing in Sarasota, Florida. The Seven Years' War piece "Brave Wolfe" must have made its rounds on both sides of the US-Canada border as demonstrated by its inclusion here and bears comparison with Ian and Sylvia's equally somber version on Northern Journey. The venerable New Orleans blues of "Junco Partner" has been interpreted quite frequently over the years, but Von Schmidt was probably one of the first white guys to adapt what was originally a boogie-woogie piano tune for guitar. "De Kalb Blues" is a decent enough rendition of something learned from Lead Belly, although the album reaches a low point on the lame white calypso of "Lolita," which is an example of a sub-genre that has not aged well, its occasionally humorous lyrics notwithstanding. "Champagne Don't Hurt Me, Baby" is an interesting variant of "'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do" (recorded by Bessie Smith, Frank Stokes, and Mississippi John Hurt, among others) notable for drug references that were extremely candid for 1963, the year in which this LP was recorded. "Buffalo Skinners" effectively evokes images of the Old West, and "Jack O'Diamonds" puts the spotlight on Von Schmidt's tasty slide guitar technique. It would be interesting to find out how many aspiring folkies (and, in many cases, eventual folk rockers) learned "He Was a Friend of Mine" from the version featured here. I'd be willing to bet quite a few. "Cocoa Beach" reprises the musician's recounting of his adventures in Florida, with "Down on Me" being another example of a traditional piece that he helped popularize among musicians who started out as folkies in the early 1960s. The album concludes with a rousing ensemble version of "Titanic," which actually equals the emotional intensity of William and Versey Smith's vintage performance of the similar "When That Great Ship Went Down" from 1927.
**Note: This LP is pretty beat up, so I judiciously used audio software to remove as many of the snaps, crackles, pops, and clicks as possible without adversely affecting the music. Additionally, it's a mid to late 1960s reissue in which the original mono recording was electronically remastered for stereo, a hideous practice that was all too widespread at the time. Once again, I have used said software to restore this LP to its initial monaural format. I hope that you will find the results acceptable. The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt is one of too many neglected classic albums from the 1960s that is in desperate need of a proper vinyl and CD reissue. In the meantime, music bloggers such as myself will attempt to help fill the void on what will hopefully be only a temporary basis.
1. Crow Jane
2. Gulf Coast Blues
3. Brave Wolfe
4. Junco Partner
5. De Kalb Blues
7. Champagne Don't Hurt Me, Baby
8. Buffalo Skinners
9. Jack O'Diamonds
10. He Was a Friend of Mine
11. Cocoa Beach Blues
12. Down on Me
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
It's kind of surprising that I'm not a bigger fan of Dan Hicks, especially considering that he has an obvious appreciation for vintage American music, writes lyrics that express a humorously sardonic worldview, and was a founding member of one of my favorite bands from 1960s San Francisco, the Charlatans. These are all things that count for a lot in my book. At one time, I owned almost his entire major-label output yet parted with all but one of these albums after I came to the conclusion that they were just a little too cornball for my taste. I still have my copy of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks' Original Recordings LP from 1969 primarily because the featured versions of "Canned Music" and "I Scare Myself" are absolutely outstanding, although I think the remaining tracks range from merely decent to downright hokey.
So it was quite a pleasure to discover how great this CD is. In fact, I'll come right out and say that if you can own only one title by Hicks, Early Muses is the one to have since it captures the singer-guitarist-drummer during a most interesting transitional phase toward the end of his tenure with the Charlatans and prior to his formation of the Hot Licks, which was first a side project and ultimately his main musical focus. 19 of these 20 tracks were recorded as publishing demos in late 1967 and early 1968, with Hicks handling the singing and guitar-playing duties and in certain instances overdubbing himself on percussion, harmonica, autoharp, and banjo. Future Hot Licks Jaime Leopold and, to a lesser extent, Jon Weber assist respectively on standup bass and lead guitar on several songs, while a pre-It's a Beautiful Day David LaFlamme contributes on violin. Leopold and LaFlamme had both previously been in the instrumental outfit Orkustra with future Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil. According to the CD's booklet notes, Hicks first became acquainted with Leopold, and then met LaFlamme through him, which in turn led to an introduction to Weber, though the violinist and guitarist never played in the band at the same time. To add to the convolution, Bill Douglass was the bass player at live shows during the early days of the Hot Licks, which was often a supporting act for the Charlatans while Hicks was also still a member of that band. By the time he was an ex-Charlatan and working on Original Recordings, Leopold and Weber had come on board full-time, Sid Page had taken over for LaFlamme on violin, and singers Sherry Snow (formerly of Blackburn & Snow) and Christina Gancher had replaced original Lickettes Mitzi Douglass and Patti Urban. Even that lineup was short-lived, but I digress.
THE HOT LICKS' FIRST LIVE APPEARANCE, EARLY 1968 - L TO R:
MITZI DOUGLASS, PATTI URBAN, HICKS, & BILL DOUGLASS
MITZI DOUGLASS, PATTI URBAN, HICKS, & BILL DOUGLASS
What I really like about these demos is that - in addition to the usual western swing, jazz, and gypsy music elements that are found in most of Hicks' songs - they possess an engagingly stoned vibe that is absent on most of his subsequent material. For lack of a better way to put it, these performances sound so 1967-1968 and therefore possess a certain je ne sais quoi that is unique to music from the latter half of that decade. Enthusiasts of musicians from this period will know exactly what I'm talking about. The sole exception is the opening track, a cute version of "Home on the Range" that features a young Dan and his father singing into a primitive home recording device, circa 1953. "Waitin' for the '103'," "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away," "Slow Movin'," "The Jukies' Ball," and "Canned Music" were eventually re-recorded for the first Hot Licks' album, but, with the exception of the last track, I like this CD's stripped-down versions better. It's a bit strange to hear the aforementioned group of tunes without the Lickettes' backing vocals, but you may reach the verdict that their cloying presence on the better-known renditions is extraneous after hearing these earlier run-throughs. The Latin-tinged "Shorty Goes South" introduces one of Hicks' recurring lyrical characters as does the ode to saloon pugilism, "O'Reilly at the Bar," which was eventually redone on Striking It Rich. "The Innocent Bystander," perhaps a meditation on a Haight-Ashbury outsider, and the compellingly bizarre "Laughing Song" were also recast on that album in slightly more gussied-up incarnations. Do you like songs about animals? If so, you just might love "Euphonious Whale" as much as I do. This reading can't really be improved upon, but the version on Last Train to Hicksville ain't half bad either. That LP also includes an updated take on "My Old Timey Baby," a song with lyrics about a thrift store-frequenting hippie chick. But since the piece is definitely a product of the 1960s, this earlier recording just sounds so much more natural. Remember what I was saying about that stoned vibe earlier on? Well, the sublime acoustic psychedelia of "He Don't Care" and "The Gypsy's Secret" represent exactly what I was talking about. Only Dan Hicks could come up with titles like "Shall I Ask and Elf?" and "I've Got a Capo on My Brain" as well as penning lyrics that are equally distinctive. Listen, and you'll hear what I mean. "Living with a Lie" comes off as a straight-ahead country number, while "Love Bug Blues" ranks as this CD's most rhythmic performance. Judging by its title, you probably wouldn't suspect that the subject matter of "All-Day Sucker" is about a guy whose feelings for a girl are unreciprocated, but with the biting wit of Hicks, anything is possible. On the other hand, "Fallin' Apart" does not concern itself with the dissolution of a relationship but rather the effects of a person experiencing a nervous breakdown. Although never commercially released by Hicks, the band Tongue & Groove, which featured ex-bandmates and former Charlatans Mike Ferguson and Lynne Hughes, did a pretty good interpretation of this song on their self-titled LP from 1969.
**On a related note, this blog's very first post, a bootleg of Charlatans concert recordings from 1967-1969 titled From the Red Dog to Straight Street - Live in the 60s, has been re-upped in FLAC for your listening pleasure.
1. Intro: Home on the Range
2. Waitin' for the "103"
3. How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?
4. Slow Movin'
5. Shorty Goes South
6. The Innocent Bystander
7. The Jukies' Ball
8. Euphonious Whale
9. He Don't Care
10. The Gypsy's Secret
11. O'Reilly at the Bar
12. My Old Timey Baby
13. Shall I Ask an Elf?
14. Living with a Lie
15. I've Got a Capo on My Brain
16. Canned Music
17. Love Bug Blues
18. All-Day Sucker
19. Fallin' Apart
20. The Laughing Song
Monday, November 22, 2010
Listen, my friends,
A truly classic album sounds even better with an improved MP3 version of the MONO vinyl rip and now in FLAC as well.
For more information, check out:
Moby Grape - Mono Version (Columbia, 1967)
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
During the 1965-1969 period, it seemed like just about every city had a thriving rock scene with a seemingly limitless number of bands trying to become the next big thing. Although it doesn't receive the recognition that it deserves, Minneapolis was one of the most exciting places to be in the Midwest during that time as there were several studios and small labels to document the efforts of the local musicians. Candy Floss - The Lost Music of Midamerica compiles 24 mostly obscure tracks recorded under the aegis of one of the Twin Cities' most important songwriting teams from the late 1960s.
Candy Floss was a publishing company established by Dale Menten and Peter Steinberg in 1967. They soon joined forces with Barry Thomas Goldberg and Gary Paulak, guitarists in a group called the Shambles (which also originally included bassist Jay Lee and drummer Whip Lane). This outfit essentially became the house band for Candy Floss, and its members often backed other musicians during studio seesions or recorded under different band names altogether. During its brief two-year heyday, the company helped its artists secure releases on nationally-distributed labels such as Atco, Mercury, and Parrot. In addition to nurturing its own musicians, Candy Floss also provided songs to groups already established in the Minneapolis area as well as up-and-comers who required production assistance with their self-composed material.
If you're expecting nothing but garage rock on this CD, you will be disappointed. In fact, at least half of the tracks feature heavily arranged production and at times sound more British than American to my ears. Best known for their psych-punk nugget "Faces," T.C. Atlantic leads off with the baroque "Twenty Years Ago (In Speedy's Kitchen)," whereas the fuzz-laden "Love Is Just" returns them to more familiar territory. The orchestration continues on the whimsical "Flannigan's Circus," the somber "WW II in Cincinnatti," and the majestic "Lights of Rome," all performed by the Shambles. If Eric Marshall & the Chymes' "The Countess" and "I Can't Love You Anymore" sound as if they were cut from the same cloth, that's because the band was more or less the Shambles in disguise, although the former features the lead vocals of Fred Freeman from T.C. Atlantic. The soaring strings are the highlight of the Left Banke-esque "I Once Had a Dream" by vocalist Arne Fogel and guitarist Steve Longman, although Mike Graw's harpsichord flourishes also contribute to the extravagant atmosphere. "It's All a Dream" radically departs from the mood established by most of the previous tracks and features a very young Michael Yonkers along with his unique wailing vocals and savage guitar attack. "Need Your Lovin' Oh No" by Michael & the Mumbles is another of Yonkers' earliest recordings, and its go-go organ and spacey sounds effects contribute much to its appeal. These two songs are by far the best tracks on this compilation and give the listener an idea of the musical directions that the iconoclastic singer-guitarist would pursue in the future. Another Candy Floss studio creation, the Seraphic Street Sounds showcased the vocal harmonies of Dale Menten, Michael Flaherty, David Steineck, and Michael O'Gara as heard on "Without Love" and "Holly Go Lightly." "Keep It Simple" is another baroque pop offering, this time from the Ron Geslin-led group, the Hot Half Dozen. Two of this CD's selections qualify as mystery tracks - the Farfisa organ-driven instrumental "The Out Crowd" and garage rocker "Give Me Love" - since they originally come from an acetate that merely identifies the group as the Avanties with no other information provided. Next up are the Shambles' considerably less embellished first recordings, the tough "Black Spiders" and the rather Kinksish "7:30 Sunset," while Peter Steinberg's "Find That Woman" nicely recreates the stomping sounds of 1950s R&B. The less said about the overly cute "Oscar Crunch" and the gimmicky "Here Come Da' Judge" by the Nickel Revolution (in fact, a Gary Paulak studio-only group), the better. "Have You Ever," performed by a psychsploitationally-titled outfit called the Trippers, is one of those period pieces where a drug manifesto masquerades as a good-timey tune complete with kazoo solo. The Puddle was a Candy Floss supergroup comprised of many of the aforementioned musicians, but I don't think the sum quite equals the parts. "Happy Like This" could arguably be considered blue-eyed soul, but I find the lyrics of "Red Rover, Red Rover" to be too insipid for their own good. The CD concludes with another song by the Shambles, the unadorned sunshine pop of "Bring Back the Carnival," which nicely pairs three-part vocals with simple piano accompaniment.
Many of these tracks are sourced from scratchy 45s and battered acetates, so temper your sonic expectations accordingly.
1. Twenty Years Ago (In Speedy's Kitchen) - T.C. Atlantic
2. Flannigan's Circus - The Shambles
3. WW II in Cincinnati - The Shambles
4. Lights of Rome - The Shambles
5. The Countess - Eric Marshall & the Chymes
6. I Can't Love You Anymore - Eric Marshall & the Chymes
7. I Once Had a Dream - Longman and Fogel
8. It's All a Dream - Michael Yonkers
9. Without Love - Seraphic Street Sounds
10. Keep It Simple - Hot Half Dozen
11. Holly Go Lightly - Seraphic Street Sounds
12. The Out Crowd - Avanties
13. Need Your Lovin' Oh No - Michael & the Mumbles
14. Love Is Just - T.C. Atlantic
15. Black Spiders - The Shambles
16. 7:30 Sunset - The Shambles
17. Find That Woman - Peter Steinberg
18. Oscar Crunch - Nickel Revolution
19. Here Come Da' Judge - Nickel Revolution
20. Have You Ever - The Trippers
21. Happy Like This - The Puddle
22. Red Rover, Red Rover - The Puddle
23. Give Me Love - Avanties
24. Bring Back the Carnival - The Shambles
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
When this funk-soul-jazz-spoken word monster finally got reissued a few years ago, many hailed it as a lost masterpiece of the early 1970s Chicago black underground. Now that the dust has settled and the hype has died down, Boscoe's lone recorded effort still holds up as one of the most significant rediscoveries of the last decade. If you like music with a groove that also makes you think, look no further.
The group's lineup included James Rice on guitar, Harold Warner on trumpet, Darryl Johnson on saxophone, Reg Holden on trombone, Ron Harris on bass, and Steve Cobb on drums. Originally known as From the Womb to the Tomb, the sextet earned its reputation as a formidable cover band by regularly gigging at South Side venues such as the High Chapparal, the Green Bunny, and the Burning Spear. Somewhere along the way, they changed their name to Boscoe and started writing their own material that artfully reflected the realities of inner-city living as well as the turbulent late 1960s-early 1970s period of which they were a cultural product. Percussionist Cobb spearheaded the group's movement toward socially-conscious lyrics. In interviews, he recalls how they would win over audiences with well-executed cover versions of contemporary R&B and soul hits during their shows' first sets only to unleash their more challenging self-composed material after the intermission. Cobb considered their performances successful if people in the crowd stuck around and appreciated the music in a more quiet and thoughtful manner. After developing a following and getting increased exposure from playing on the college circuit throughout the Midwest, it came time for Boscoe to record their eponymous long player. The problem was that none of the major music companies were interested in having them on their roster, possibly due to the unyielding nature of the band's compositions. The album was essentially self-released on the extremely obscure Kingdom of Chad label in 1973, with a mere 500 copies being pressed. Fame and fortune were not in the cards for the group, and they folded not long afterward. As is often the case for an outfit of this nature, record collectors (especially Japanese ones) helped keep the memory of the sextet alive, which ultimately culminated in this fine reissue from 2007 in addition to some long overdue attention from the mainstream media.
Stylistically speaking, the material on Boscoe lies somewhere between early-period Funkadelic, Gil Scott-Heron, and contemporary Chicago groups like the Pharaohs, with its eight tracks recorded live in the studio and more or less sounding the same as when the band performed them on stage. Warner, Johnson, and Holder are an extremely impressive brass section and their instruments collectively have that melancholy tone unique to horn players from the Windy City, even on the more uptempo numbers. Rice provides tasty leads or stuttering rhythm fills on his guitar when relevant and appropriate, while Harris' bass playing provides a rock-solid foundation for the rest of the group to follow. As far as I'm concerned, Boscoe's star attraction is Cobb, whose breathtakingly agile drumming has to be heard to be believed. "Introduction" and "Writin' on the Wall" are essentially spoken-word performances that leave little to the listener's imagination regarding the band's politics. Although uniquely a part of this outfit's vision, these pieces compare favorably to material by the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets. The tough "He Keeps You" represents everything great about Boscoe: killer harmony vocals, imaginative horns, and a seductive beat with one-of-a-kind time signatures. "We Ain't Free" utilizes the same formula but takes things even further as an eight-minute mini-epic that also includes plenty of space for sermonizing and soloing. The one-two punch of this pair of tracks delivers quite a funk wallop. The propulsive "If I Had My Way" keeps things going in the same direction and showcases the horn players better than any other selection. Another reviewer has pointed out that "I'm What You Need" sticks out as the LP's only love song in which the vocalists are cast as suitors to a single mother whose child's father has just left her. Even at its most sentimental, this album stays true to Boscoe's South Side roots. If I could include only one of these songs on a playlist, it would have to be the anthemic "Money Won't Save You," which features all of the groups' hallmarks and could have been a hit single with a bit more production and promotion. The stretched-out "Now and Den" comes closest to the band playing jazz, and its mellow ambiance makes it the perfect closing track.
The only problem with this reissue is its somewhat muddy sound, which is especially apparent on the first two tracks. I'm guessing that the master tapes disappeared a long time ago and that an original pressing of the album was used as a substitute. Otherwise, I can't say enough good things about Boscoe.
2. Writin' on the Wall
3. He Keeps You
4. We Ain't Free
5. If I Had My Way
6. I'm What You Need
7. Money Won't Save You
8. Now and Den
Sunday, November 14, 2010
How does one even begin to describe these recordings? Kings of the Ragtime Banjo ranks among the most obscure albums ever released by Yazoo, which is saying something considering the label's generally esoteric nature to begin with. While blues, jazz, gospel, and hillbilly artists receive all of the attention in studies of American roots music, ragtime performers rarely enter the conversation. Every now and then, someone might mention pianist Scott Joplin. But this style is greatly misunderstood as demonstrated by the fact that many of the works credited to the genre's best-known composer were actually inspired by material that was originally performed by black string bands. The numerous white musicians who specialized in ragtime during the 1890s and early 1900s have been almost completely forgotten, despite the fact that they were some of the most popular musicians of their era.
This LP not only helps bring attention to genius of Vess L. Ossman and Fred Van Eps, it also demonstrates the exalted position that their chosen instrument held in American culture during the 1900-1923 period during which these sides were recorded. Long before the guitar achieved preeminence in the United States, playing banjo was all the rage. While today we tend to think of it as something originally exclusive to black songsters and early country musicians from Appalachia, by the late 19th century the instrument had transcended its humble origins and became accepted by parlor society. Ossman and Van Eps' live and recorded performances of rags, marches, two-steps, and cakewalks did much to make this possible by helping introduce the banjo to middle and upper class audiences in America, Britain, and Europe.
Sylvester "Vess" Louis Ossman (1868-1923) was one of our country's first recordings stars, having waxed his first cylinders in 1896 and being one of the first to release flat discs for a new invention, the gramophone, the following year. His sides as both an accompanist and featured performer sold well, and his reputation was further enhanced by well-received performances for Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII of England during the early 1900s. Ossman attributed his musical prowess to a strict practice regimen of ten hours per day during the first three years he played banjo and thenceforth at least four hours per day to maintain his skills. Not surprisingly, the speed at which he could perform on his instrument was nothing short of exhilarating as his seven tracks readily make apparent. Since these recordings are really old (100 years or more), the sound quality is obviously not the best, and it's not always clear what other instruments are present. Pianist Frank P. Banta was a regular accompanist to Ossman up until his early death in 1904. Afterward, the banjoist often recorded with Audley Dudley on mandolin and Roy Butin on harp-guitar. "Smoky Mokes," "Peaceful Henry," and "Rusty Rag" are charming duet instrumentals with Banta that were issued between 1900 and 1902, while "Yankee Land," "The Smiler," "Popularity," and "St. Louis Tickle" (all committed to wax circa 1904-1910) find Ossman playing in orchestral settings.
Fred Van Eps (1878-1960) was a disciple of Ossman who, among other methods, learned to play his instrument by practicing to the cylinders of his idol. Not only did the protege build his reputation through performances arranged by Ossman's booking agency in the early 1900s, he also effectively replaced him as America's most popular recorded banjo player when the elder musician decided to concentrate on touring after 1910. Although the picking of Van Eps may be more precise, the liner notes quote him as acknowledging that "Ossman had a certain rhythmic facility that I don't think any other banjoist has ever equalled." In the 1910s and early 1920s, Van Eps achieved great popularity from performing and recording dance material in both trio (which typically included alto saxophonist Nathan Glantz and pianist Frank Edgar Banta, son of the aforementioned Frank P.) and small group formats. Orchestral arrangements prevail on the seven rags from 1911-1923 presented here, including "Red Pepper Rag," "Black Diamond Rag," "Whipped Cream Rag," "Ragtime Oriole," "Junk Man Rag," "Policy King" (my favorite track on this LP), and "White Wash Man," and consequently may sound like hot jazz numbers to some ears. At the very least, these two styles share a common ancestor. Fred was also the father of jazz guitarist George Van Eps, a great musician in his own right whose selected recordings can be heard on the equally compelling Yazoo album, Fun on the Frets: Early Jazz Guitar.
1. Smoky Mokes - Vess L. Ossman
2. Peaceful Henry - Vess L. Ossman
3. Yankee Land - Vess L. Ossman
4. The Smiler - Vess L. Ossman
5. Popularity - Vess L. Ossman
6. Rusty Rags Medley - Vess L. Ossman
7. St. Louis Tickle - Vess L. Ossman
8. Red Pepper Rag - Fred Van Eps
9. Black Diamond Rag - Fred Van Eps
10. Whipped Cream Rag - Fred Van Eps
11. Ragtime Oriole - Fred Van Eps
12. Junk Man Rag - Fred Van Eps
13. Policy King - Fred Van Eps
14. White Wash Man - Fred Van Eps
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Time for another installment of the ongoing Oxford American Southern Sampler/Southern Music CD series. It would be a pretty cool dream job to work as the guy who puts these things together. There is definitely an art to assembling music compilations - especially good ones -which would help explain why I spent hours of my teenage and early twenty-something years engaged in the activity. As usual, this OA disc from the magazine's 2006 music issue is an eminently listenable model of heterogeneity with the featured titles covering an approximate 150-year span of performances by Southern musicians representing a wide variety of genres.
The only problem with reviewing these things is that I've always had a problem with brevity, so it's a challenge for me not to write a paragraph or two about each artist. What ultimately unites all of these musicians is the fact that they are sons or daughters of the South. Sometimes the compilers push the envelope a little bit either by including performers from states that are not traditionally considered part of Dixie or by featuring those whose origins are Southern but play music that is not considered representative of the region. However, that's part of what makes these comps so great. You never quite know what you're going to get other than a usually compelling mix of both familiar and obscure material that is either directly or indirectly a product of the South.
So we'll start with my favorite tracks. If you've read my review for Jeannie C. Riley's The Generation Gap, you already know how much I dig her miniature psychedelic country masterpiece "Words, Names, Faces," about which I can't really say enough good things. Banjoist Uncle Dave Macon's "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy" might be overly familiar to aficionados of hillbilly music, but this song certainly deserves its reputation as a classic. Even though tobacco use disgusts me, Western swing master Tex Williams' "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" is simply irresistible, as is the Armstrong Twins' guitar-mandolin tour de force "Beetle with the Boogie Woogie Beat." Although most people don't associate 19th century America with classical music, we actually had an outstanding native-born composer in Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose superb piano opus "Souvenir de Porto Rico" is expertly played by Amiram Rigai. Gary Stewart provides some really good late 1970s country with "Single Again." "C'est Si Bon" is an example of one of those tracks that sounds anything but Southern. However, let's not forget that the lovely Eartha Kitt originally hailed from South Carolina, which is culturally a million miles away from this performance. Ask any Sam Cooke fan to list the singer's five best songs, and I'll bet you that none of them will mention "Tennessee Waltz." Play this track for them, and they might reconsider. If Eartha Kitt's "C'est Si Bon" is a million miles from South Carolina, Sun Ra's "We Travel the Spaceways" is a million light years from his home state of Alabama. It's a great track, even if the performance focuses more on the vocals of June Tyson than it does the bandleader's Farfisa organ work.
In my opinion, the remaining material rates from pretty good to pretty not-so-good. "Goin' Back to New Orleans" by Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers is fine jump blues - if that's your bag - and fans of Big Star will probably like "Stroke It Noel" from Third. When I lived in Oxford, Mississippi from 1996 until 1998, I took a lot of flak for not jumping on the Fat Possum bandwagon. I still think that Junior Kimbrough's recordings are extremely overrated, but I must admit that "I Cried Last Night" is decent enough. "How Long Do I Have to Wail for You?" is passable modern-day funk from Sharon Jones. Although I prefer more rough-hewn gospel performances, the Swan Silvertones do a nice version of "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep," whereas the track by the mysterious NuGrape Twins is a strange example of sanctified singers doing a jingle for a soft drink in 1926. I actually remember Bob Dorough's "Three Is a Magic Number" from the Schoolhouse Rock television show, and it still holds up after all these years. I don't think as highly of "Right on My Way Home," however. "Theme from Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay," with, um, vocals by the erstwhile Cassius Clay has a little bit of novelty value, and that's about it. "Straight to Hell" by the awkwardly named Drivin' N' Cryin' doesn't really do much for me, nor does "You You You You You," an overly-precious song from the 6ths featuring Katharine Whalen. Andy Griffith's excessive wholesomeness always rubbed me the wrong way, but I must admit that he never sounded tougher than he does on "Mama Guitar," which was originally featured in the five-star 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd. It's a pity that the identities of the accompanying musicians is consigned to oblivion. Other than the Nightcrawlers, We the People are my favorite 1960s garage-psych rock band from Florida. "She Does Everything for Me" is good, but not their best. A lot of people forget that Richard Hell of Television and Voidoids fame was originally from Kentucky, thus the inclusion of "Blank Generation" on this sampler. 1970s New York punk isn't really my thing, but if it's yours, you probably already love this song. There's nothing wrong with Townes Van Zandt's "Nothin'," recorded live in 1994, but I prefer his earlier material.
1. Goin' Back to New Orleans - Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers
2. Words, Names, Faces - Jeannie C. Riley
3. Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy - Uncle Dave Mason
4. Stroke It Noel - Big Star
5. Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette) - Tex Williams
6. I Cried Last Night - Junior Kimbrough
7. Beetle with the Boogie Woogie Beat - The Armstrong Twins
8. How Long Do I Have to Wait for You? (radio edit) - Sharon Jones
9. Oh Mary, Don't You Weep - The Swan Silvertones
10. Three Is a Magic Number - Bob Dorough
11. Theme from Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay - Muhammad Ali
12. Souvenir de Porto Rico - Louis Moreau Gottschalk played by Amiram Rigai
13. Straight to Hell - Drivin' N' Cryin'
14. Single Again - Gary Stewart
15. You You You You You - The 6th featuring Katharine Whalen
16. Right on My Way Home - Bob Dorough
17. Mama Guitar - Andy Griffith
18. I Got Your Ice Cold NuGrape - The NuGrape Twins
19. She Does Everything for Me -We the People
20. C'est Si Bon - Eartha Kitt
21. Blank Generation - Richard Hell
22. Tennessee Waltz - Sam Cooke
23. Nothin' - Townes Van Zandt
24. We Travel the Spaceways - Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Like the subject line sez...
Vinyl rips always sound better in FLAC, and the new MP3 version is a definite improvement over the old one from almost two years ago. The cover artwork still sucks, but there's not much I can do about that. Enjoy.
Monday, November 8, 2010
November is already here, so it's time to place your order for the 2011 Blues Images calendar. If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you probably already know how great these items are on account of the featured artwork and the accompanying 16-track CD with sound quality that rivals even that of Yazoo releases. 2008 may not have been a good time for the economy, but the soundtrack for that year's calendar helped make things a little more bearable. Any middle-class white males like myself out there who think that they've had it tough during the last several months don't have a thing to complain about compared to what black folks from the rural South had to endure under Jim Crow laws during the 1920s and 1930s. Prewar blues recordings sometimes help keep things like that in perspective.
Blues Images head honcho John Tefteller typically assembles wonderfully diverse compilations, and this one is no exception. "Range in My Kitchen Blues" leads things off and pairs singer Alger "Texas" Alexander with guitarist Lonnie Johnson, a seemingly incompatible combination of "country meets city" that somehow works. This is the best that Blind Lemon Jefferson's "One Dime Blues" has ever sounded, so you still might want to check it out even if it's something you've previously experienced in lower fidelity elsewhere. Prewar blues collectors don't seem to get as excited about "Mississippi Jailhouse Groan" as they do for "Ham Hound Crave," which collectively represent Rube Lacy's entire discography. Although not as rhythmically interesting, the former is still one of the most lowdown prison-related blues performances ever committed to wax. The similarly under-recorded Blind Joe Reynolds remains a relatively obscure prewar blues figure more as a consequence of the lousy sound quality on his extant recordings than from his considerable but admittedly idiosyncratic performing skills. Reynolds' unique guitar style and wonderfully untutored moaning vocals on "Nehi Mama Blues" and the Cream-era Eric Clapton touchstone "Outside Woman Blues" mark him as a musician who was utterly sui generis. The appropriately-titled "Deep Moaning Blues" by Ma Rainey is the most compelling classic female blues performance on this CD, which also includes the so-so "Cold and Blue" by Ida Cox and the novelty Christmas number "Santa Claus Crave" by Elzadie Robinson. The probable 1887 birth date of Louisiana-born and Mississippi-raised Sam Collins makes him a contemporary of Charlie Patton and other important first-wave bluesmen whose repertories also included songster and religious material. He might enjoy greater recognition today if not for the fact that he was less than competent when playing guitar in a conventional fashion, even in spite of his outstanding singing voice. However, Collins could play the instrument effectively when he utilized a slider, as conclusively demonstrated on his best-known piece, "Jail House Blues." Although I prefer Gus Cannon's work with the Jug Stompers, he also recorded a handful of interesting banjo-guitar duets alongside Blind Blake as "Banjo Joe" in 1927, with "Madison Street Rag" being a fine example of their collaborations. Is it just me, or does Cannon sound like he's singing in slow motion on this number? The ubiquitous Blind Blake appears under his own name three times on this compilation, including the largely instrumental showpiece "Seaboard Stomp" (pay special attention to how he uses his guitar to imitate the sounds of other instruments), the thematic "Low Down Jail House," and "Ain't Gonna Do That No More," which contains a laundry list of activities in which the virtuoso will no longer participate. "The New Shake That Thing" provides the listener with some variety in the form of vintage string band sounds from the Mississippi Sheiks, while Blind Willie McTell and Mary Willis contribute with the previously uncompiled "Talkin' to You Wimmen About the Blues" b/w "Merciful Blues." The former features the same melody as Blind Blake's "Georgia Bound" (which was also the basis of Robert Johnson's "From Four Until Late"), and the latter brings attention to McTell's underrated slide guitar playing.
1. Range in My Kitchen Blues - Texas Alexander
2. One Dime Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
3. Mississippi Jail House Groan - Rube Lacy
4. Nehi Mama Blues - Blind Joe Reynolds
5. Deep Moaning Blues - Ma Rainey
6. Jail House Blues - Crying Sam Collins
7. Madison Street Rag - Banjo Joe (Gus Cannon)
8. Seaboard Stomp - Blind Blake
9. The New Shake That Thing - Mississippi Sheiks
10. Low Down Jail House - Blind Blake
11. Cold and Blue - Ida Cox
12. The Santa Claus Crave - Elzadie Robinson
14. Talkin' to You Wimmen About the Blues - Blind Willie McTell & Mary Willis
15. Merciful Blues - Blind Willie McTell & Mary Willis
16. Outside Woman Blues - Blind Joe Reynolds
Sunday, November 7, 2010
It's a bit surprising that someone would give Doug Sahm's less celebrated Atlantic albums the deluxe reissue treatment. Nonetheless, The Genuine Texas Groover combines the two 1973 releases Doug Sahm and Band and Texas Tornado (as by the Sir Douglas Band) along with a slew of bonus tracks from the recording sessions in New York City and San Francisco. Hardcore Sir Douglas fans, of course, rally around these LPs - perhaps excessively so, but critics have generally been much less kind to them, with lukewarm-to-dismissive reviews in The Rolling Stone Record Guide from 1979 and the Rolling Stone Album Guide from 1992 being typical. In terms of artistic merit, the truth lies somewhere between such divergent assessments. While I don't think that these efforts are as good as my personal favorites, Mendocino and Together After Five, they are definitely worthwhile listening experiences for Doug Sahm completists who are curious about the musician's excursions into country and big band sounds.
According to the extensive booklet notes, Doug Sahm and Band was essentially a loosely-organized super session produced by industry veteran Jerry Wexler that included luminaries such as Dr. John on keyboards, Bob Dylan on various instruments and vocals, David Bromberg on dobro, Flaco Jimenez on accordion, David "Fathead" Newman and Wayne Jackson on horns, and old standby Augie Meyers on piano and guitar. Although Gilbert Shelton's cover artwork suggests great things, I still can't help but help but feel that this album's sum is a bit less than its parts. Not to say that it's bad, because it's definitely not that. But for those of us who have a preference for Sahm's more rockin' side, a lot of these performances may come off as overly laid back. However, if you're in the mood for something mellow and rootsy, Doug Sahm and Band could be just the thing you're looking for. "(Is Anybody Going To) San Antone" (which features Doug on fiddle), "It's Gonna Be Easy," "Faded Love," "Blues Stay Away from Me," and "Me and Paul" (Willie Nelson's response to "Me and Bobby McGee"?) are the LP's most overtly country moments, with the orchestrated blues of "Your Friends" and "Papa Ain't Salty" respectively being nods to Bobby "Blue" Bland and T-Bone Walker. Sahm's own "Dealer's Blues" is a self-composed example of this style. "Poison Love" receives a nice Tex-Mex-flavored interpretation due in no small part to Jimenez's expert contributions and Andy Statman's fine mandolin work, while some people consider the version of Dylan's "Wallflower" included here to be definitive. The concluding songs, both from Doug's songbook, are pretty good. "Don't Turn Around" is an appealingly steady-rolling number, and "I Get Off" rocks harder than anything else on this LP. The bonus tracks consist of previously unreleased material that is mostly in the same bag as the performances chosen for the final product. Jimmie Rodgers' "Never No Mo' Blues," Jack Clement's "Miller's Cave," Hank Williams, Sr.'s "On the Banks of the Old Pontchartrain" and "Hey, Good Lookin'," the standard "Columbus Stockade," and Joey Longoria's "The Blues Walked on In" continue the country explorations - for the most part successfully - with Charlie Owens' pedal steel solos on the last two titles being the highlights of the bunch. "Sometimes," "Please Mr. Sand Man," and "Chicken and the Bop" find Sahm and Band attempting 1950s-styled big band R&B material with similar results. The Sahm original "Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Amsterdam" was just a few finishing touches away from being something that had the potential to be a successful single.
I have to give the edge to Texas Tornado as the better album of the two. Consisting of material recorded during the sessions for Doug Sahm and Band as well as additional time spent in the studio afterward, this title is similarly eclectic but seems to possess just a bit more energy than its predecessor. The opener, "San Francisco FM Blues," a funky and horn-heavy observation on post-1960s Haight-Ashbury, gets things off to a great start. "Someday" and "Blue Horizon" continue Doug's experiments with large-ensemble arrangements, and you'll like these tunes if that sort of music is your cup of tea. His woozy rendition of Bobby Charles' "Tennessee Blues" may be just a little too soporific for its own good. There aren't too many white guys who can successfully cover material originally performed by the aforementioned Bobby Bland, but the subject of this review may be the best of a select group as convincingly demonstrated on "Ain't That Loving You." The next three songs - "Texas Tornado," "Juan Mendoza," and "Chicano" - hearken back to the old Quintet of the 1960s in spirit if not in sound. These are the type of creations that could only emerge from the singular mind of Doug Sahm what with their diverse multicultural and uniquely Texan musical influences. The same goes for the superb "Hard Way" and even better "Nitty Gritty," especially since they feature a return of Augie Meyers' signature reedy organ. Even though "I'll Be There" is not an original, it's still a fine performance and helps make the second side of this album among the most compelling group of songs that the man has ever recorded. This disc's bonus tracks include more twangy numbers that never saw commercial release such as "From a Jack to a King," "Leave Me Alone with the Blues," and "I'm Just Tired of Getting Burned" as well as an alternate take of "Blue Horizon," the backing track of "Nitty Gritty," and the full-length versions of "Your Friends" and "Papa Ain't Salty," which both provide fascinating glimpses of how Sahm worked in the studio. "Sometimes You've Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows" is another one of those songs performed in a style reminiscent of the original Sir Douglas Quintet. The unfinished "Bobby's Blues" serves as another example of an attempt at an uptown blues shuffle in the manner of T-Bone Walker or Bobby Bland and provides a further illustration of Sahm's typical modus operandi during recording sessions.
Doug Sahm and Band
1. (Is Anybody Going to) San Antone
2. It's Gonna Be Easy
3. Your Friends (album version)
4. Poison Love
6. Dealer's Blues
7. Faded Love
8. Blues Stay Away from Me
9. Papa Ain't Salty (album version)
10. Me and Paul
11. Don't Turn Around
12. I Get Off
13. Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Amsterdam*
14. Never No Mo' Blues*
16. Miller's Cave*
17. On the Banks of the Old Pontchartrain*
18. Hey, Good Lookin'*
19. Please Mr. Sand Man*
20. Chicken and the Bop*
21. Columbus Stockade*
22. The Blues Walked on In*
The Sir Douglas Band - Texas Tornado
1. San Francisco FM Blues
3. Blue Horizon
4. Tennessee Blues
5. Ain't That Loving You
6. Texas Tornado
7. Juan Mendoza
9. I'll Be There
10. Hard Way
11. Nitty Gritty
12. From a Jack to a King*
13. Leave Me Alone with the Blues*
14. I'm Just Tired of Getting Burned (alternate version)*
15. Blue Horizon (take 5)*
16. Nitty Gritty (backing track)*
17. Sometimes You've Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows*
18. Bobby's Blues*
19. Your Friends (full-length version)*
20. Papa Ain't Salty (full-length version)*
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Like the subject line sez...
First time in FLAC for both of these as well as new and improved MP3 @ 320 kbps rips.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
In his final book, Barrellhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary, recently departed blues scholar Stephen Calt defines the word "mamlish" as
A vogue term of unknown meaning that figured in half a dozen blues recordings between 1927 and 1930. It may have been facetiously nonsensical, an intensifier, or a euphemistic expletive, perhaps deriving from mamesh, a Yiddish word meaning "really, truly, literally," Ma'alish! a World War I expression used by British troops meaning "Never mind!", or (less likely) mamish, meaning "foolish, effeminate, mammyish."When I acquired this album about 16 years ago, I had no idea what the word meant. I just knew that I had to get my hands on every LP of reissued prewar blues sides that I could find. At the time I came across this title, records from the Yazoo catalogue were my primary interest nearly to the exclusion of all else. But after one look at the enticingly-titled Ed Bell's Mamlish Moan, I knew that I had to have it, even if I was not familiar with the label on which it had been released. In truth, I didn't even know that Mamlish was a record company run by many of the same collectors who were the brain trust behind Yazoo - including the usual suspects such as Calt, Nick Perls, Don Kent, Bernard Klatzko, and Michael Stewart - until I read the liner notes. But even then, I was somewhat confused. Why did the name of the label also happen to be one of the words in the title? Was this just a one-shot effort that didn't make it on to Yazoo for some reason? Back then, there was no Internet to inform me that this much ado about mamlish (the word) did not mean what I had first guessed and that Mamlish (the company) had also released several other excellent prewar blues collections in addition to this one.
Assuming that all 14 of this album's tracks feature the same person, Ed Bell merits distinction as Alabama's most frequently recorded prewar blues guitarist. For that to be true, however, sides by "Sluefoot Joe" and "Barefoot Bill" would have had to have been different instances in which he recorded under a pseudonym, which is likely but not definite. Certainly there are uncanny similarities exhibited by these three musicians on records made between 1927 and 1930, especially in regard to the vocals and, to a lesser extent, the guitar playing. Born in 1905, Bell grew up in Greenville, Alabama, in the south central part of the state. As seems to be typical for bluesmen, he spent much of his formative years learning guitar from a mentor whom he eventually bested, living a transient lifestyle, and performing in a variety of venues including street corners and country dances. According to the liner notes, Bell might have been discovered by Alabama talent scout Henry Charles, which would explain how he came to record for Paramount in 1927. Since Charles often used different names for his artists in an effort to maximize their commercial potential, it is likely that he came up with both the "Sluefoot Joe" moniker utilized on 78s released by QRS in 1929 as well as the even more colorful "Barefoot Bill from Alabama" sobriquet that appeared on sides issued by Columbia later that year and in 1930. The Great Depression, of course, intervened, and by 1933, Bell recast himself as preacher either out of a newfound religious conviction or economic necessity. Mystery surrounds his death in 1966 as different sources ascribe his demise variously to natural causes, black magic, or even murder on account of his involvement with the Civil Rights movement.
ED BELL AS BLUES MUSICIAN, 1927 (THE PHOTO ON THE
ALBUM COVER DATES FROM HIS LATER SANCTIFIED YEARS)
Bell's four songs for Paramount - "Mamlish Blues," "Mean Conductor Blues," "Ham Bone Blues," and "Frisco Whistle Blues" - represent the musician at the height of his powers. Although they contain floating verses and themes undoubtedly familiar to most prewar blues aficionados, the unique arrangements, magnificent vocals, and impressively unique guitar phrasing contribute to these performances belonging to the creme de la creme of the genre. Stephen Calt even goes as far as favorably comparing the first two numbers with the work of Charlie Patton in addition to grouping "Ham Bone" in the "Slidin' Delta-Crow Jane" family of songs and describing the figure that gives "Frisco Whistle" its dynamic character as a "fast 'pick-strum' tonic riff." The Sluefoot Joe sides - "Shouting Baby Blues," "She's a Fool," "Tooten' Out Blues," and "House Top Blues" - curiously feature Bell (in all likelihood) on vocals only, with one notable exception. The guitarist on three of these titles is the outstanding St. Louis musician Clifford Gibson, while on "Tooten' Out" (an urbanized version of "Mamlish Blues," according to Calt) he probably provides piano accompaniment to the guitar playing of "Sluefoot." Why QRS paired these two dissimilar bluesmen is unclear, though I can't complain about the end results, even if Gibson's more deliberate approach forces Bell to perform in a less idiosyncratic manner. "From Now On," "She's Got a Nice Line" (a duet with singer Pillie Bolling that is reminiscent of "It's Tight Like That"), "One More Time," "Big Rock Jail," and "Squabblin' Blues" (whose lyrics recall Henry Thomas' "Texas Worried Blues") are all 1929-1930 recordings that Columbia released under the name "Barefoot Bill." The singer once again assumes guitar-playing duties, which means that they sound more like the Paramount material from 1927. However, the liner notes point out one key difference:
As a sidepoint, even a casual listen to "Squabbling Blues" signifies that Bell almost certainly uses a different guitar from his Paramount sides. It seems one of the earliest examples of the use of a 14 fret guitar, possibly a Gibson. It appears unlikely for Bell to have executed the slide from the 19th fret on anything less than a 14 fret guitar, as most 12 fret guitars end at or before the 19th fret, rendering a smooth execution of this manoeuvre nearly impossible. Prior to 1930, a 14 fret guitar was virtually unobtainable.By the time of his last issued Columbia record, the raggy "Carry It Right Back Home," the musician was back to being called Ed Bell once again, despite referring to himself in the song as "Barefoot Bill." The man's complete biographical details will unfortunately remain unknown, and we may never be able conclusively to determine if these three bluesmen were indeed one and the same. Nevertheless, the recorded legacy Ed Bell-Sluefoot Joe-Barefoot Bill provides us with some tantalizing glimpses of Alabama's underdocumented prewar blues scene.
**This LP not only features superb liner notes a la Yazoo but also includes a booklet with additional information and lyrics for each of the songs, all scanned for your reading pleasure.
1. Mamlish Blues - Ed Bell
2. Shouting Baby Blues - Sluefoot Joe
3. From Now On - Barefoot Bill from Alabama
4. She's a Fool - Sluefoot Joe
5. Mean Conductor Blues - Ed Bell
6. She's Got a Nice Line - Pillie Bolling and Barefoot Bill
7. One More Time - Barefoot Bill from Alabama
8. Ham Bone Blues - Ed Bell
9. Big Rock Jail - Barefoot Bill from Alabama
10. Tooten' Out Blues - Sluefoot Joe
11. Frisco Whistile Blues - Ed Bell
12. Carry It Right Back Home - Ed Bell
13. House Top Blues - Sluefoot Joe
14. Squabblin' Blues - Barefoot Bill from Alabama