Leader Blues

Friday, March 09, 2007

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Stackhouse label keeps blues alive

Jim O’Neal, co-founder of Living Blues magazine, is back in the record business with a new label after the demise of Rooster Blues, which issued some of the most important blues of the last 25 years, including several first-rate musicians from Arkansas, such as the late Larry Davis, as well as Willie Cobbs and Lonnie Shields, who are still performing.

Stackhouse Records is O’Neal’s latest venture, and he appropriately kicks off his new label with a reissue, “Keep It to Yourself: Arkansas Blues, Vol. I: Solo Performances,” originally issued on Rooster Blues in 1983.

The CD, which is issued in conjunction with the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, showcases several talented, but obscure, south Arkansas musicians who were recorded by Louis Guida during field trips in 1975-76.

The recordings were sponsored by the music department at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and a bicentennial grant. Photographs from the UAPB Blues Project can be seen online at the Arkansas Arts Center — www.arkarts.com.

The CD has been selected as an outstanding folk recording by the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress. This is the music of the cotton fields and juke joints and prisons: Reola Jackson sang Bobby Blue Bland’s “I’ll Take Care of You” at the Cummins Prison Women’s Unit at Varner.

The only musician blues fans around here will recognize is the ailing Cedell Davis of Pine Bluff, who recorded four songs for this CD, playing his guitar upside down and using a butter knife for a slide.

W.C. Clay performs the opening theme of “King Biscuit Time,” the long-running blues show on Helena radio station KFFA, as well as the title tune, both composed by Sonny Boy Williamson, an early star on “King Biscuit Time,” who is shown on the cover. He died in a boarding house in Helena.

Clay also does a spirited version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” (“Tell your Ma, tell your Pa, I’m gonna send you back to Arkansas”) and pretty much steals the show.

Other musicians are Nelson Carson, Mack White, Willie Wright, Herbert Wilson, Trenton Cooper (who boogies on piano) and Willie Moore, who does his own version of Calvin Leavy’s “Cummins Prison Farm,” here called “Willie’s Blues.” (Leavy, formerly of North Little Rock, is still serving a long sentence at Cummins for drug dealing, although he recorded “Cummins Prison Farm” in 1970, long before he was busted.)

The sound is terrific throughout, thanks to fine remastering that Jim O’Neal’s records are known for. He also wrote the biographical section of the liner notes, while Guida discusses how he came to record these wonderful but much underappreciated Arkansas artists.

This is essential material for all Arkansas blues fans, and a second volume of band performances is in the works. Perhaps the Delta Cultural Center and the Arkansas Arts Council could help with funding.

O’Neal has released several other Stackhouse CDs. (The label is named after Houston Stackhouse, a blues musician who spent some time in Helena and for whom a stage is named during the blues festival.) The most recent release is “It’s a New Day, Brother!” with the late Foree “Guitar” Wells and the Walnut Street Blues Band from Louisville, Ky., which was recorded in 1977, just before Wells’ death.

This ranks with the best of O’Neal’s old Rooster releases: Wells was a fine guitar player and singer, whose deep voice speaks of good times and bad. It’s probably the only record Wells made, apart from backing some well-known musicians in the studio and in clubs. (He played bass on a recording made in Little Rock with Fenton Robinson.)

“It’s a New Day” opens with the title song, with Wells displaying the confidence of a blues star, even though he lived much of his life in obscurity in Louisville.

O’Neal has an ear for unappreciated musicians and brings out the best in them. Like all his other CDs, the sound here is fantastic, the artwork first-rate and the liner notes detailed and informative.

O’Neal, who now lives in Kansas City — he started Living Blues in Chicago and his record labels in Clarksdale, Miss. — has also issued a second CD by D.C. Bellamy, who’s also from Kansas City and is the half brother of late soul singer Curtis Mayfield.

“Give Some Body to Somebody” is another carefully engineered CD that showcases Bellamy’s fine voice and versatile singing: It’s part church music and soul and blues and it’s all good.

We’ve also enjoyed “Prodigal Son” by a singer named Chester (Memphis Gold) Chandler of Washington, formerly of Memphis. This is more soulful blues with a fine sound.

Stackhouse CDs are available from Stackhouse232@aol.com. You can find other CDs and LPs, as well as blues magazines and books and more.

The blues will never die, somebody said — thanks to blues scholars and producers like Jim O’Neal, who keep the music alive by issuing indispensable recordings of the world’s most amazing artists.
(Next: Rooster Blues)