FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Terrific music from a favorite label
Wearing a wig and white tuxedo, the 70-year-old Walker is a showman who sounds a lot like Chuck Berry (Walker even does a duck walk). Walker is a fine guitar player and singer and mixes several musical styles into his repertoire: Fifties rock-and-roll he listened to on the radio, country blues he heard growing up in the Delta (he was born on a plantation outside Clarksdale), as well as urban blues he picked up in Chicago and country music he’s heard in Bakersfield, Calif., where he’s lived and worked most of his life.
“Promised Land” and “Rock the Night” were produced by Living Blues founder and impresario Jim O’Neal, and they capture the gritty music and spontaneity of juke-joint blues: It’s not slick or flashy blues, but it’s genuine and honest and never boring.
You could listen to Robert Walker all day and not get tired of him. (You might also want to check out another one of his CDs, “Rompin’ and Stompin’” from Fedora.)
Rooster Blues is still my son’s favorite record label (and mine too, come to think of it), which issued some 30 records that are all excellent and a joy to listen to.
Quite an achievement for a small label that is no more, although O’Neal has a new label, Stackhouse Records, which we reviewed last week.
When you listen to a Rooster CD, you get the real blues with a terrific sound that O’Neal creates in the studio or sometimes in a club. Rooster Blues recorded many of the greatest blues musicians of the last 25 years, from the late Larry Davis of Lonoke County to Lonnie Shields, formerly of Helena and now living in Philadelphia; from harmonica wizard Willie Cobbs (who wrote “You Don’t Love Me”) and who still lives in Monroe County) to Willie King, an Alabama bluesman who may be O’Neal’s greatest find.
England native Larry Davis’ “Funny Stuff” was produced by St. Louis musician Oliver Sain, who plays saxophone and organ on the CD, which is on at least one list of all-time great blues records — it’s that good.
Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s pianist, also appears on “Funny Stuff,” with Davis’ guitar playing and gritty singing dominating the proceedings.
O’Neal usually writes his own liner notes, which are the best in the business. He’s the Whitney Balliett of blues criticism. (Jazz critic Balliett, who treated musicians with the same respect O’Neal does, passed away recently.)
Rooster Blues covers are striking and the liner notes attractively laid out: The cover of Willie King’s “Living in a New World” (pictured here) is one of our favorites: It captures the music, which is best when played in a small juke joint, the dancers gathering around musicians who wear street clothes just like King does in his old knit shirt and baseball cap and jeans and sneakers.
When we asked O’Neal about his favorite Rooster Blues CD (which is like asking a parent about his favorite child), he said Willie King’s “Freedom Creek,” his debut CD that won a Handy Award for record of the year, would be on top of his list.
“I felt that the first Willie King album was the most important one, the one I was glad to have recorded if I had done nothing else,” O’Neal told us.
“But I usually felt that there was something important about each album,” he continued. “It was easier to maintain that sense by continually recording new artists rather than do the proper businesslike thing and record several albums apiece by a few artists, develop the name recognition . . . but I just wasn’t into that. I would just let them go on to another label if they felt I wasn’t keeping up with what they needed to do.”
O’Neal would make one or two records with his musicians, and they’d move on, but each record was carefully planned and executed, so obscure musicians like Roosevelt (Booba) Barnes, who made one CD called “The Heartbroken Man,” is a modern masterpiece.
Besides Larry Davis, Rooster recorded other Arkansas musicians, including Willie Cobbs’ “Down to Earth” and Lonnie Shields’ “Midnight Delight and “Portrait.” Terrific music.
There were a whole slew of other Rooster artists, most of them transplanted southerners living up North: Big Daddy Kinsey and Kinsey Report’s “Bad Situation,” D.C. Bellamy’s “Water to Wine,” Lady Bianca’s “Rollin’,” Eddie C. Campbell’s “Hopes and Dreams,” Otis Clay’s “Soul Man: Live in Japan” on a double LP.
Also Eddie Clearwater and Otis Rush’s “Filmdoozie,” Magic Slim’s “Grand Slam,” Lonnie Pitchford’s “All Around Man” (where he plays the didley bow, a single-string guitar), Philadelphia Jerry Ricks’ “Many Miles of Blues,” Eddie Shaw’s “In the Land of the Crossroads,” Valerie Wellington’s “Million Dollar Secret” and Arthur Williams’ “Midnight Blue.”
Although they’ve left the South (Big Daddy Kinsey is no longer alive), Super Chicken, who recorded “Blues Come Home to Roost,” which is his best CD, still lives in Clarksdale, while Johnny Rawls, who made “Can’t Sleep at Night” with L.C. Luckett, lives in Memphis. An all-star lineup.
Rooster also issued “And This Is Maxwell Street,” a three-CD box set of live recordings of blues musicians playing for tips in a Chicago neighborhood in 1964, including Helena’s Robert Nighthawk, whose son, the drummer Sam Carr, following in his father’s footsteps, appears on Robert Bilbo Walker’s live CD that was also made in Chicago.
What they all have in common is a talent for the blues, played brilliantly, brought together under one label by Jim O’Neal.
Here’s hoping he’ll record the next Otis Rush (one of O’Neal’s favorites) and share his discovery with us. Rooster Blues and Stackhouse CDs are available from www.bluesesoterica.com.