Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Marker recalls fire at Twist

There’s finally a marker honoring B.B. King in Twist in Cross County, where the great blues singer escaped from a fire at a nightclub with his guitar and named it Lucille.
You’ve probably heard the story : Back in the 1950s, a couple of fellows fought over a woman and knocked over a barrel filled with kerosene used to heat the club.

Everybody fled, but King realized he’d left his guitar inside the burning club.

Risking his life, he retrieved the guitar. He found out the woman the men had fought over was named Lucille, so he’s named all his Gibson guitars after her.

King lived in nearby Parkin for a while and is said to have family there. Howlin’ Wolf farmed near a bend in the St. Francis River and also lived in Parkin for a time. He was inducted into the Army at Camp Robinson during the Second World War. He, too, deserves a marker.

Arkansas is just catching up with Mississippi when it comes to celebrating our musical heritage. Mississippi has put up dozens of markers honoring such great bluesmen as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Son House and others.

The King marker is among the first of several more planned around Arkansas. A marker in downtown Helena honors the King Biscuit Time radio show, which is still on KFFA. Almost 70 years ago, Sonny Boy Williamson was promoting Sonny Boy Corn Meal on the program.

A marker in downtown Helena honors the historic radio show and the blues musicians who played on the show. The old Brinkley railroad depot pays tribute to rhythm-and-blues pioneer Louis Jordan, whose music evolved into rock-and-roll.

Other Arkansas musicians who should get their own markers are Albert King, Charlie Rich, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Robert Junior Lockwood, Levon Helm, Al Green, Johnnie Taylor, William Warfield and Junior Parker.

Rockabilly Roadhouse on Hwy. 67 from Newport to the Missouri border honors the rockabilly stars of the 1950s, including Arkansans Johnny Cash, Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess.

Amazingly, Burgess is still going strong at the age of 80 and will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Jacksonville Senior Center, 100 Victory Circle. Don’t miss it.


The current issue of Living Blues celebrates the magazine’s 40th anniversary.

Who says music in the 1970s wasn’t any good?

A list of the decade’s best blues records compiled by Jim DeKoster, a longtime contributor to the magazine, includes several Arkansas-born musicians: Luther Allison (“Luther’s Blues”), Buster Benton (“Spider in My Stew”), Frank Frost (self-titled), Robert Lockwood (“Steady Rollin’ Man”), Jimmy McCracklin (“Yesterday Is Gone’), Son Seals (“The Son Seals Blues Band”) and Junior Wells, who is listed twice: His “Southside Jam” with Buddy Guy and “Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues.”

Musicians with Arkansas connections include Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You” (he grew up in Osceola); Fenton Robinson’s “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” (he lived and worked in Little Rock for a time); Geater Davis’ “Sweet Woman’s Love” (he also lived for a while in Little Rock, where a couple songs were recorded), and the great Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Back Door Wolf.”

Omitted from DeKoster’s list is the best solo acoustic record of the 1970s: Johnny Shines’ “Crossroads Blues.” It’s a stunning CD, beautifully recorded by the blues scholar Pete Welding.

In the 1930s, Shines used to travel through Arkansas with Robert Johnson, whose music Shines performs with enormous power and emotion. It’s as if both artists were still alive, playing at the crossroads and waiting for the Greyhound bus to catch a ride.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Festivals may fade, but Arkansas blues will never die

The news that after 23 years the Helena blues festival will no longer be free this fall didn’t come as a surprise.
The festival, which is scheduled for Oct. 8-10, has struggled for years — it couldn’t come up with a modest fee when it lost the rights to King Biscuit Blues Festival after an entertainment company bought the name of the defunct flour company in Helena — and the festival has fallen deeper into debt.

Most of the festival’s problems were self-inflicted — mismanagement, mediocre bookings — but also demographic: Blues festivals appeal to aging baby boomers, who don’t travel as much as they used to, and anyway, they’d rather spend more time with their new grandbabies than listen to another average blues band.

Festivals are shutting down across the country — the San Francisco blues festival is ending its run after more than 30 years — but the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, as it has been called in recent years, will continue with a little help from sponsors and the state. Many poor people around Helena will probably not pay the $10 to get in, but even if attendance is down 90 percent, which is possible, the festival could still raise $100,000 from ticket sales and from vendors along Cherry Street.

The festival was started in 1986 to promote the area’s blues heritage. Several great Arkansas bluesmen were born in the area — Robert Lockwood, Robert Night-hawk, Roosevelt Sykes, George (Harmonica) Smith, Willie (Big Eyes) Smith, Sam Carr and others — and it’s still home to “King Biscuit Time” on radio station KFFA, where for many years, the King Biscuit Boys performed live. They included Lockwood, Sonny Boy Williamson, Peck Curtis and others. Sonny Boy died in the 1960s in a nearby rooming house. Robert Johnson is said to have played at a juke joint at the end of Cherry Street.

But even as the festival struggles, you can always listen at home or in your car to blues musicians with Arkansas connections. Our list of favorites of those who have called the Natural State their home:

1. Albert King, although he was born in Indianola, Miss., spent many years around Osceola and changed his name to King to cash in on B.B. King’s popularity. King Albert made many fine records — anything from Stax is worth a listen — but our favorite is “King of the Blues Guitar” (Atlantic), which is a longer version of another record from Stax called “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The Atlantic reissue is a classic from beginning to end. Besides the title tune with the immortal words, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all,” it includes “Laundromat Blues,” “Overall Junction,” “Kansas City” and much more of Albert’s great guitar playing and fine voice.

The CD is on many blues critics’ list of favorites. Also recommended: “Live Wire Blues Power” (Stax), recorded at the Fillmore West, is stunning but much too short at 38 minutes. “Blues from the Road,” recorded live at the Montreaux Blues Festival in Switzerland, is much more generous: It includes 93 minutes on two discs “That’s What the Blues is All About,” “Blues at Sunrise,” “Matchbox Holds My Clothes,” “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and more.

(King is buried near West Memphis at Paradise Gardens Cemetery off I-40 in Edmundson.)

2. Junior Parker, born in West Memphis, is perhaps Arkansas’ most important soul-blues singer whose roots are familiar only to a handful of blues scholars. (Many blues reference guides incorrectly list Clarksdale, Miss., as his birthplace.)

His “Mystery Train” on Sun Records influenced young Elvis, who is pictured with Parker and Bobby (Blue) Bland on the cover of a Rounder CD of the same name, which also features Auburn (Pat) Hare of Cherry Valley (Cross County) on guitar. Hare died in prison for killing his girlfriend. (Amazingly, the CD includes his prophetic “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby.”)

Junior Parker had a fine voice — he was often compared to B.B. King and Ray Charles — and he was a good harmonica player, but he never caught on with white audiences and died young in 1970. But he left behind several important records, such as the two-volume Duke reissues called “Junior Blues” and “Backtracking” (MCA) made mostly in the 1950s. The sound is often low-fi, but the music is excellent: “Next Time You See Me,” “Driving Wheel,” “Strange Things Happening,” “The Things I Used to Do,” “Crying for My Baby,” “I’ll Forget About You” and much more.

Parker made some excellent music in the 1960s, when he was recorded in stereo. “You Don’t Have to Be Black to Love the Blues” (Groove Merchant) is probably his best. “The Mercury Recordings” CD is also excellent. He’s one of the great Arkansas musicians who never enjoyed the recognition he deserved.

3. Junior Wells, another fine harmonica player, was also born in West Memphis. His “Voodoo Man Blues” with Buddy Guy is Delmark Records’ biggest seller. Wells’ earliest recordings are “Blues Hit Big Town,” also from Delmark, and “Calling All Blues,” his Chief, Profile and USA recordings. They’re essential, as is one of his last, the Grammy Award-winner “Come on in This House” (Telarc).

4. Howlin’ Wolf, the great Chicago bluesman who also played harmonica and the guitar, was born in Mississippi but farmed for many years on the Phillips Plantation 15 miles north of Parkin in Cross County. (Pat Hare was in his band in the late 1940s, along with Junior Parker and harmonica wizard James Cotton when they played in east Arkansas and recorded in West Memphis. That’s three harmonica players in the group.)

Wolf’s earliest recordings sprang from the fertile soil of east Arkansas. He made his earliest recording in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Memphis and West Memphis and later on Chess. His “Memphis Days, Vol. I and II” on Sun Records and “Howling Wolf Sings the Blues” on Modern are stunning, and so are his Chess recordings, especially “The Rocking Chair” album.

5. George (Harmonica) Smith, another terrific mouth harp player — Arkansas has produced a lot of them — was also a fine singer: Better than Little Walter and Big Walter, which is saying a lot. “Harmonica Ace” from Modern and “Now You Can Talk About Me” from Blind Pig are both excellent. His “Tribute to Little Walker” CD with the Muddy Waters Band is superb.

6. Frank Frost from Auvergne (Jackson County) is the last harmonica player on our list, although he also played keyboards and guitar. One of his earlier records is on Phillips International called “Hey Boss Man!” with the incomparable Big Jack Johnson on guitar and Sam Carr on drums. They also made the classic “Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down” on Earwig, which also issued Frost’s magisterial “Midnight Prowler.”

7. Robert Nighthawk, Sam Carr’s father, was a great slide guitar player who made excellent records with several Delta musicians. His “Bluebird Recordings, 1937-38,” made under his real name, Robert Lee McCoy, and his “Masters of Modern Blues” with Houston Stackhouse and others (much of it recorded across the river in Lula, Miss.) are first-rate. He also played on Maxwell Street, an old flea market in Chicago, where he was recorded in the mid-1960s. In addition to “Live on Maxwell Street, 1964” he recorded “Bricks in My Pillow” in Chicago in the 1950s.

Nighthawk spent much of his later years in Helena and Lula. He is buried near Frank Frost in Helena’s Magnolia Cemetery.

8. Robert Lockwood, who was born in Turkey Scratch near Marvell (Phillips County), played at the Helena blues festival every year. The last time was almost three years ago, just before he died at the age of 91. He played a beautiful version of “Love in Vain” by Robert Johnson, who’d taught him how to play the guitar in Helena when Lockwood was a teenager.

You can hear “Love in Vain” on Lockwood’s “Delta Crossroads” CD from Telarc on a superaudio CD.

Although he recorded in the 1940s and 1950s, he did not release an LP as a leader until 1970, when he was in his mid-50s: “Steady Rollin’ Man” from Delmark is 40 minutes of deep Arkansas blues.

He made several more records in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, including “Live in Japan” with Louis and Dave Myers on Delmark, the “Complete Trix Recordings” and “I Got to Find Me a Woman” on Verve. But for someone who performed for 70 years, his output wasn’t huge.

9. Luther Allison, who was born near Widener (St. Francis County), was a great guitar player. He made his mark in Chicago, where some of his fellow musicians considered him better than B.B. King. Allison’s “Love Me Mama,” “Live in Chicago,” “Blue Streak,” “Luther’s Blues” and “Reckless” are examples of tough Chicago blues.

Recorded in the early 1970s, “Bad News Is Coming” and “Luther’s Blues” from Gordy, a Motown subsidiary, may be Allison’s best. Although Motown wasn’t known for blues — owner Berry Gordy may have tried to cash in on B.B. King’s new popularity with whites — the label knew how to record music as well as anybody. Although the two records didn’t sell well, they still sound great today.

10. Son Seals, who was born in Osceola (Mississippi County), made a series of blistering records for Alligator back in the 1970s and 1980s and helped make blues popular with young rock fans. “The Son Seals Blues Band” and “Midnight Son” are first-rate.

11. Michael Burks is a blues artist in the Allison/Seals tradition. Burks is one of only two active bluesmen on our list. He was born in Camden, grew up in Milwaukee but now lives in North Little Rock. He’s been a regular at the Helena blues festival and Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock.

Burks has made several fine CDs for Alligator, including “I Smell Smoke,” “Make It Rain” and “Iron Man.” He’s a slash-and-burn guitar player who sounds best live. Catch him in Helena in October.

12. Larry Davis grew up in Lonoke County and made several outstanding records before his untimely passing in 1994. Stevie Ray Vaughan covered Davis’ “Texas Flood,” whose royalties should take care of Davis’ family for a long time. His “Funny Stuff” from Rooster Blues is terrific stuff with deep Delta roots that made their way to central Arkansas at least a century ago.

13. Roosevelt Sykes was born near Helena and moved to St. Louis and then Chicago and lived his final years in New Orleans.
He played a mean barrelhouse piano up and down the Delta and wrote some classic blues, including “Nightimes Is the Right Times,” “Driving Wheel,” “West Helena Blues,” “44 Blues” and others.

He can be heard on “Chicago Boogie” and on other Delmark CDs, as well as “The Honeydripper” from Smithsonian Folkways. His earliest recordings from 1929 and later are available from Document Records.

14. Cedell Davis, who now lives in a Pine Bluff nursing home, has had polio for much of his life and has been confined to a wheelchair. He plays powerful slide guitar with a butter knife and sings like someone who’s seen hard times all of his life. Davis’ music is like a low-level tornado that’s coming at you. Listen to it on three exceptional CDs, “Feel Like Doing Something Wrong,” “The Horror of It All” and “When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine.”

15. Lonnie Shields from West Helena has a big following in the Delta, although he moved to Philadelphia several years ago, trying to catch a break as a bluesman.

Shields is an impressive soul-blues singer who was influenced by such Arkansas performers as Al Green and Johnny Taylor.

Shields is now his 50s, but he hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. Almost 20 years ago, he recorded the award-wining "Portrait" on Rooster Records, which was produced by Jim O’Neal, the blues scholar who co-founded Living Blues magazine. That record was followed by "Midnight Delight," also on Rooster, which may be better than the first one.

Shields comes home now and then, but there aren’t many opportunities these days for performers like him. That’s too bad, but get his two Rooster CDs.

The list goes on: We haven’t mentioned crossover artists like Brinkley native Louis Jordan, who is in a category of his own (get his two-volume “Let the Good Times Roll: The Anthology 1938-1953” from MCA), or Camden native Little Willie John (get “All 15 of His Hit Charts 1953-1962” from King), or Helena native Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Walk,” or Gurdon native Jimmy Witherspoon, whose “Spoon Concerts,” backed by jazz greats Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster and others, is one of the finest live records made by a jazz-blues artist. About as good as it gets.

Is that enough music?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Koko sang ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ to us

Leader publisher

Koko Taylor, the Queen of the Blues, appeared at the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville, Miss., last September.

We’d missed her show because the festival had been moved without much advance notice. But we caught her back stage and asked her to autograph a publicity shot her record company had sent us. We then asked her if she’d sing just a tiny bit of her big hit, “Wang DangDoodle,” and she obliged us while we sat on a bench.

We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long

All night long, all night long, all night long.

We hugged and promised to look her up in Chicago, but she looked frail — she’d been in poor health for years — and we didn’t think we’d see her again.

Koko died on Thursday at the age of 80 in Chicago, where scores of other great blues artists who’d migrated there from the South are buried.

We first met her more than a decade ago, when her band from Chicago appeared for a fund-raiser for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss. John Mayall was on the bill, and Buddy Guy was the headliner.

Koko and her group may have driven down from Chicago (years later, a couple of her musicians were killed on the road trying to get to a gig). She was never a megastar like Buddy Guy or John Mayall. But she was just as good.

Taylor’s family moved to Chicago from Memphis in the early 1950s, and she soon became part of the jumping blues scene that included transplants from all over the South.

It was an amazing gathering of great artists who were born in a region where the blues began. But few women rose to the top in a field dominated by men since the 1930s. Before that, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and other women were the stars.

Then tastes changed, so it was remarkable for Koko Taylor to take her rightful place in the Chicago blues pantheon. She had a powerful voice till the end, even though she’s had a couple of operations and many health problems.

She recorded Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” on Chess in 1965, and remained a star for the rest of her life. Her finest recordings are gathered on a Chess compilation titled “What It Takes,” where she’s backed by some of the finest blues musicians in Chicago: Big Walter Horton (harmonica), Buddy Guy, Robert Nighthawk, Jack and Louis Myers (guitar), Lafayette Leake (piano), Dixon (bass) and others.

There’s also a similarly titled CD from Alligator (her label for more than 30 years), titled “I Got What It Takes.” This, too, has several top-notch Chicago bluesmen, including Sammy Lawhorn of Little Rock, Mighty Joe Young on guitar, Abb Locke on saxophone, Bill Heid on keyboards and Vince Chappelle on drums.

Wonderful musicians, wonderful singer.

“There’s not a lot of young people listening to the blues,” Koko told an interviewer. “I want to educate the next generation and show them how to sing the blues. I want to get it through their little heads the blues is cool, and the blues will never die. It’s music that sticks to your ribs—like red beans and rice.”

May she keep singing to us from heaven. Rest in peace, Koko.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Second top 10: More of our favorite blues records

Leader publisher

After our recent column about our top 10 blues records, here’s a list of our next 10 favorites. (The first installment appears on our music blog at

What follows is an arbitrary listing, but the selections are often included in blues anthologies and on best-of listings. Our choices are not only important examples of outstanding blues, but the sound is the best you can expect despite their age.

Rev. Blind Gary Davis was a gospel singer, like Blind Willie Johnson (see below), but their music had the urgency of the blues even as they sought salvation in Heaven after falling for the wrong women and other distractions (“Cross and Evil Woman Blues,” “I’m Throwing Up My Hands”).

Davis made a living as a Harlem street singer and bottleneck guitar player. He sang the blues occasionally, even if he considered himself a gospel singer. Some of his best early work is found on “Meet You at the Station: The Vintage Recordings, 1935-1949” (Document Records).

Almost every number, apart from the two mentioned above, is a gospel song (“I Am the Light of the World,” “Have More Faith in Jesus,” “I Cannot Bear My Burden By Myself”), and there’s also a novelty tune called “Civil War March,” which probably dates back to the First World War, although Davis cries out, “Shoot the Jap!”

But the overall feel is of the natural blues: Heartfelt and gripping. Only the words are different. The singing is intense and the guitar playing powerful and the sound is as clear as any modern recording.

Lightning Hopkins’ “The Gold Star Sessions” Vol. I and II (Arhoolie), showcases the master of Texas country blues in his prime. Recorded between 1947-1950 in Houston, this set belongs in any blues fans collection. A successor to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Hopkins was a natural performer, especially on these recordings, before he became a blues star and just coasted for young white audiences.

Even so, he never made a bad record — “Texas Bluesman” (Arhoolie) and his Smithsonian/Folkways CD are also first-rate — but the Gold Star sessions are an excellent introduction to this important bluesman.

Skips James’ “Complete Early Recordings — 1930” (Yazoo) are unlike anything in the blues. His falsetto singing is unique to the area where he was born, near Bentonia, Miss., just north of Yazoo City. Only a handful of others preserved his style of singing: Jack Owens, who died in the 1990s, and Jimmy (Duck) Holmes, who is still performing in that haunting falsetto: “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” “Devil Got My Woman,” “Special Rider Blues” and “I’m So Glad” (copied by Eric Clapton and Cream) are important examples of the Bentonia school, which ignored the rougher style of blues in the Delta.

James was rediscovered in the 1960s and performed for a few years before he died from cancer in 1969.

Tommy Johnson’s “Canned Heat, Complete Recordings 1928-1929” (Document Records) — a 1960s rock group took its name from that song — would have been on our first top 10 list, except for the poor quality of most of what we have left of his recordings. But in this reissue, the sound on the first eight numbers, which he made for Victor, are excellent for their age and rank in importance with anything by Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. The three men were born in the same area near Jackson, Miss., but learned the blues in the Delta.

Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues,” “Big Road Blues,” “Bye-Bye Blues,” “Maggie Campbell Blues,” “Lonesome Home Blues,” “Big Fat Mama Blues” and “Canned Heat Blues” (about his addiction to Sterno, which he strained for the alcohol) “epitomized the Mississippi blues at its most expressive and poetic,” according to British blues scholar Paul Oliver, who considers Tommy Johnson at the top of the blues pantheon.

Johnson “was an individualist, whose sense of timing and rhythm, sensitive guitar playing and impressive vocal range were innate,” Oliver wrote.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s 1929 singles were cheaply recorded and are almost impossible to listen to, although Oliver thinks his “Slidin’ Delta” and “I Wonder to Myself” from that year are among his best. Johnson stopped recording after the 1929 crash and died in obscurity 25 years later.

Blind Willie Johnson is on many top 10 blues lists, even though this Texas street singer was a gospel performer. But he’s associated with the blues because of his bottleneck- guitar playing at its best. Only Rev. Davis is considered his possible equal as a slide guitar player.

Johnson’s collected recordings are found on “Praise God I’m Satisfied” and “Sweeter as the Years Go By” from Yazoo. His rough, gravelly voice will amaze from the start: From “John the Revelator” to “The Rain Don’t Fall on Me.”

There is a similar collection from Columbia, but the editors of the “Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings” consider the Yazoo twofer the better version, which earns it a crown rating, the highest designation in the guide. (Penguin rates all the CDs recommended here with a crown.)

Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “The First Recordings” (Rounder) were made in 1959, when he was 55 years old, in McDowell’s home town of Como, Miss., between Memphis and Oxford, Miss. Alan Lomax, the folklorist, had tracked down McDowell, who had never been recorded. McDowell was a fine guitar player with a powerful voice who sang the blues (“Shake ’Em on Down,” “61 Highway Blues”) and gospel with his wife Annie Mae (“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”) the tug-of-war between the secular and the sacred.

A masterful slide-guitar player who modeled his playing after Willie Johnson (see above), McDowell’s country blues were captured on record just before it was pushed aside by electric blues. Like the title of another one of his fine CDs, “I Don’t Play No Rock-and-Roll,” he played pure blues till he passed away in 1972.

Percy Mayfield’s “Poet of the Blues” (Specialty) represents a new phase in the evolution of the blues: Recorded in the 1950s, this is the start of soul.

He later became a composer for Ray Charles. His “Please Send Me Someone to Love” became a soul-blues standard. (The great Willie Cobbs sang it at last year’s Wing Ding festival in Jacksonville.)

Mayfield’s songs are not the happiest — “Strange Things Happening,” “Life Is Suicide,” “Lost Love,” “Hopeless,” — but his sound is a masterful blend of a modern sound that was to come. He did, after all, write “Hit the Road, Jack” for Charles. (Mayfield’s “Tangerine and Atlantic Sides” CD, if you can find it, sells for up to $200 on the Internet.)

Memphis Slim, whose real name was John L. Chatman, was born in Mississippi and lived in Memphis and Chicago before he moved to Europe. He was a charismatic performer with a smooth piano style. One of his best records is misleadingly called “At the Gate of Horn,” which was a Chicago folk club.

This is a Vee Jay recording reissued on the Charly label, which includes four bonus tracks not found on the original LP or other releases. Matt (Guitar) Murphy (of “Blues Brothers” fame) is one of the accompanists on this superb record. Slim was a sophisticated bluesman who was not appreciated enough in the U.S. He passed away in France in 1988.

Big Maceo Merriweather was an amazing piano player and blues singer whose voice grabs you like a straight-line wind. He’d pound the piano like someone trapped in a nightmare: “Worried Life Blues,” “Chicago Breakdown,” “Won’t Be a Fool No More,” “County Jail Blues” are just some of the titles on Big Maceo’s “Flying Boogie” (1941-1945) and “Big City Blues” (1945-1950) from Document.

This is strong stuff, especially those that were recorded during the Second World War, just before he suffered a stroke. But he still played despite his disability and passed on his style to Otis Spann, who was his great disciple in the Muddy Waters band. (Spann probably belongs on this list. Check out his “Otis Spann Is the Blues” from Candid. Muddy’s important early recordings are on our first top 10 list.)

Jimmy Reed was an easygoing bluesman whose laidback vocals and decent harmonica playing are often imitated because they seem easy to copy, and many British rockers and lounge bands have adopted his style. But nobody comes close to recreating Reed’s rocking Chicago blues by way of the Mississippi Delta.

Even if you’re not a blues fan, you’ve probably heard Reed’s music, accompanied by Eddie Taylor’s fine guitar and occasionally Reed’s wife to keep the hard-drinking musician steady: “Big Boss Man,” “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “You Don’t Have to Go,” “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” “You Got Me Dizzy,” “Honest I Do,” “Hush Hush” and a couple of dozen others.

They can be found on “Boss Man” (Snapper), a two-record CD that is as much fun to listen to as any of our top blues picks. Although there are many best-of selections, this is the one to get and worth looking for on the Internet.

It’s toe-tapping music that’s easy on the ears. You can sing along and dance to it, too.
(Next: Arkansas blues)

Monday, December 29, 2008

It’s the year of the blues, or how blue can you get?

Leader editor-in-chief

This has been a tough year for almost everyone, and things could get worse in 2009. Times are bad, or in the words of the immortal bluesman B.B. King, “How Blue Can You Get?”

More than ever, this is the right time to listen to the blues, which poor black farmers created more than a century ago while they toiled the land on both sides of the Mississippi River.

You’d have to include Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) on anyone’s list of top blues recordings. Although he was born in Mississippi, he farmed for more than a decade north of Parkin in Cross County and made his earliest records in Memphis and West Memphis. (See list below.)

Congress declared 2003 the year of the blues, but let’s declare 2008 another blues year. To mark yet another milestone, here’s a list of our favorite blues recordings:

Charley Patton: “Complete Recordings, 1929-1934” (JSP). The son of a black woman who worked on a plantation and probably a white landowner or overseer, Patton was also part Indian. Out of this mixed racial background, he created amazing music that evoked the hardships of Delta life: He growls about poverty, floods, droughts, boll weevils, troubles with the law and women. “Pony Blues” and “High Water Everywhere” are the epitome of the genre. His guitar playing influenced generations of other bluesmen: Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and many others.

Patton lived for a time on a plantation near Lula, Miss., just across the river from Helena. The late critic Robert Palmer, a Little Rock native, said Patton “is among the important musicians 20th Century America has produced” and ranked him with Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley.

Although much of the music was transferred from scratchy 78s, Patton is indispensable. The inexpensive five-CD boxed set — it’s available online for under $30, or about $6 a CD — also includes other early Delta blues artists. Besides Son House, there’s seminal music by Henry Sims, Willie Brown, Louise Johnson and others.

Muddy Waters, “The Complete Plantation Recordings: The Historic 1941-1942 Library of Congress Field Recordings,” with photos of Muddy’s cabin and notes by blues scholar Mary Katherine Aldin.

These are Muddy Waters’ first records, made on Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Miss., and in front of the train depot in town, which he soon left on a train for Chicago. He made historic records there for the Chess brothers, who helped preserve Delta blues by recording Muddy, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and others.

Muddy’s Chicago recordings are available on “The Best of Muddy Waters” with Don Bronstein’s striking closeup profile of Muddy, and “Trouble No More,” a collection of his earliest Aristocrat and Chess singles. Covering the same period are two attractive collections, “Rollin’ Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection” and “The Complete Chess Masters, Volume 2, 1952-58.” The second, from Hip-O Records, is attractively packed with a booklet that contains several rare photos and another essay by Mary Katherine Aldin. This is essential music, as important as any in the American canon.

Robert Johnson, who absorbed the blues while growing up near Tunica and created his own style before his untimely death at the age of 27 in 1938, is considered by many, especially by British rockers who copied his music, as the most important blues artist of all time. His “Complete Recordings,” a two-volume CD set, helped fuel the blues revival, although I prefer his two “King of the Delta Blues” LPs reissued by Columbia for about $10 each. The LPs sound better — he’s more youthful than on the CDs, which sound like they were transferred from tapes played at the wrong speed. Johnson was in his mid-20s when he made his records in San Antonio and Dallas, and he does sound like a much younger man on the LPs. (A new Japanese CD package is supposed to correct the problems with the complete recordings, which sold about a million copies on CD.)

Johnson’s early death has been told many times: He was probably poisoned in a juke joint near Greenwood, Miss., by a jealous husband. Johnson is said to be buried in a small church cemetery outside town and is worth going there if you loved the blues. (You could stop at the nearby Viking factory and see if they’ll sell you a stove at a discount.)

Howlin’ Wolf was a part-time musician who was farming in eastern Arkansas when he was discovered after the Second World War by Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Phillips recalled, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’”

Wolf’s earliest recordings appear on two CDs, “Memphis Days” Vol. I and Vol. II, which include his complete Sun recordings with several alternate takes. They were sold to Chess in Chicago and the Bihari brothers in Los Angeles, which released them on their own labels.

The brothers were Hungarians who had been in the jukebox and record business on the West Coast, although one of them set up an operation in Memphis and often recorded in Arkansas.

The Biharis also recorded the Wolf in West Memphis. Those records appear on “ Howling Wolf Sings the Blues.” His “Moaning the Moonlight/Rocking Chair” CD from Chess is also essential. You might also consider the three-CD “Chess Box,” if you like this kind of rough, gruff music.

Wolf modeled himself after Charley Patton, who taught him the blues back in the 30s at Dockery Plantation near Drew, Miss. (where the quarterback Archie Manning, the father of the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli, was born).

B.B. King, the biggest blues star of all time — one of the few who became a millionaire and who is still performing at the age of 83 — did his best work, in my opinion, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he recorded for the Bihari brothers, a family from Hungary who had been in the jukebox and record business on the West Coast, although one of them set up an operation in Memphis and often recorded in Arkansas.
B.B. thought they were the best at recording blues and considers his “My Kind of Blues” on the Biharis’ Modern label his favorite record, which has been reissued on the British Ace label.

His “RPM Hits, 1951-1957,” also from the Biharis, has also been beautifully remastered by Ace and contains some of his most important numbers, including “Three O’Clock Blues,” “You Upset Me, Baby,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “Troubles, Troubles” and much more. This is the work of an artist at the peak of his powers.

The harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs also recorded for Chess and is considered the greatest blues harp player of them all. His “Best of Little Walter” is terrific, but so is everything he did for Chess, although as a singer he was just so-so. (Of the many harp players, George Harmonica Smith, who was born in Helena, sang the best, although Junior Wells, from West Memphis, and Sonny Boy Williamson II weren’t far behind.)

Otis Rush is one of the great blues artists alive, although, sadly, he stopped performing after a recent stroke. We caught him Helena just a few months before he fell ill. But almost everything he’s recorded is worth hearing. His “Classic Cobra Recordings,” made in the late 1950s, was an astonishing debut and is as as impressive as ever. You get the feeling Eric Clapton has worn this record out.

John Lee Hooker’s “Legendary Modern Recordings” also belongs on any Top 10 list. According to Muddy Waters — they were born in neighboring counties in Mississippi —the original boogie man looked and sounded more African than any of the top bluesmen. His beat helped create rock-and-roll.

Rounding out our Top 10 list: “Bessie Smith: The Collection” and Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying.” Just hearing their music will help make your blues go away.
(Next: Beyond the pantheon — 10 more recommendations.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Downhome blues

We had a fine little music festival recently at Wing Ding in Jacksonville. Festival organizers had asked me to invite some blues musicians, and I found a couple of good ones: The harmonica wizard, singer and composer Willie Cobbs from Smale near Brinkley, and showman Robert Bilbo Walker from Clarksdale, Miss., by way of Bakersfield, Calif.

Cobbs was backed up by Maurice Jon Vaughn and his band. The two rehearsed before the show in Vaughn’s van in the motel parking lot while they played Cobbs’ “Jukin’” CD.

Willie sang “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” and I told him it was better than Percy Mayfield’s original, but he said no way. He told me he didn’t have any of Mayfield’s CDs, so later I burned three for him and mailed them to his home.
It was touch and go with Walker, whose pickup broke down in Arizona. He was driving from Bakersfield, and it took him and his band four days to get here in two vehicles.

They arrived in Jacksonville about an hour before showtime. He and his group — he brought along his daughter and niece, who sang with him, and also a guitar player and a drummer — put on their stage outfits at the motel and made it to Dupree Park with 20 minutes to spare.

Walker played an excellent set for 90 minutes, duckwalking across the stage with his guitar like Chuck Berry, only better, because Walker can also walk backwards, which Berry can’t.

The musicians came by the house afterward and had some barbecue. Robert and Willie put on another great show. Vaughn joined them on “Big Boss Man” and “You Don’t Love Me,” which Willie didn’t do at the festival.

They sang “Happy Birthday” to Jessica, our daughter-in-law, and we realized this was how house-rent parties must have been like when musicians dropped by, and the proceeds helped pay the rent, only we felt lucky since our rent wasn’t due yet, so we didn’t have to charge our guests.

Willie called the next day and said he’d been invited to perform at a memorial concert for Duane Allman. The Allman Brothers Band had a hit with “You Don’t Love Me” and they think Willie is one terrific bluesman, which he is.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Gala honors Jordan centennial

The old house on South Main Street in Brinkley is falling apart, and there’s only a handmade sign in the front yard to remind passersby that this is where Arkansas’ most important musician was born.

Louis Jordan, the great R&B singer who helped invent rock-and-roll, would have been 100 years old this month — he died in 1975 — but this wonderful entertainer, like most of our other great Arkansas artists, doesn’t even have a permanent marker at his birthplace.

But this is Jordan’s centennial year, and he’s getting some recognition from his fans.

“We hope to have the Jordan bust installed outdoors this fall in Brinkley,” says Stephen Koch, who has been promoting Jordan for years on his radio program “Arkansongs” on KUAR-FM.

Says Koch, “Jordan, who influenced James Brown, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and more, had more than 50 top 10 hits in his own right.” A Jordan postage stamp has just been issued, Koch says. Koch will have his play, “Jump! The Louis Jordan Story,” performed Saturday and Sunday at Wildwood Park in west Little Rock.

A pre-show indoor fish fry begins at 6 p.m. Dinner and show is $50 for adults and $25 for students.
“Jump!” is directed by Cliff Fannin Baker and features Lawrence Hamilton.

Mrs. Louis Jordan will attend Saturday’s events. The team that’s making the documentary film “Is You Is” will be filming the weekend proceedings, Koch says. The film is expected to debut in October at the Hot Springs Film Festival.

Koch’s radio play airs at 1 p.m. Sunday and stars veteran local DJ Billy St. James as Jordan. “It features several of Jordan’s original hits, as well as some obscure Jordan songs, while St. James as Jordan tells Jordan’s life story,” Koch said.

“Once a month all this year,” he continued, “I’ve been broadcasting episodes featuring an angle on Louis Jordan’s music and career on ‘Arkansongs,’ which is syndicated on NPR affiliates across the state.”

In addition, there have been Jordan centennial events going on since March, including the Ozark Foothills Film Festival in Batesville, the Choo Choo Ch’Boogie festival in Brinkley in May, as well as the film presentation at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena last week.
You can still catch the “Jazzin’ Jammin’ & Jivin’” exhibit on the history of jazz on film at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena. It includes his saxophone and sheet music, as well as four original posters from Jordan’s films.

He became a musician before his teens, moved to Hot Springs when he was barely 20 to play in the spa city and he then went to Philadelphia and New York.

He made the blues jump with his lively alto playing and smooth voice. He was a great comedian, actor and showman who was as gifted as the other stars, such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, he recorded with.

Everyone knows something about his brilliant 1940s recordings for Decca which combined great musicianship, vocals and humor — “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “I’m Going to Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “Caldonia” and “Five Guys Named Moe,” the name of a long-running musical that was staged long after his death — but even when tastes changed and rock-and-roll took over the hit parade, he remained a true professional.

He bounced around record labels after Decca dropped him — the label signed Bill Haley, who admitted he copied his style from Jordan — and even with his popularity waning, he produced dozens of outstanding records in every decade from the 1930s to the 1970s.

The two-volume CD “Let the Good Times Roll” from MCA/Decca Records has all of his important tunes, from love and marriage (“Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “I’m Going to Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman”) to ballads (“Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”), from comedy sketches (“What’s the Use of Getting Sober,” “Open the Door, Richard”) to barnyard songs (“There’s Nobody Here But Us Chickens”) from southern food songs (“Beans and Cornbread,” “Cole Slaw”), to travel songs (“Fat Sam from Birmingham,” “Texas and Pacific”) all done with gusto and style.

He had a great voice, played the saxophone as well as anybody (Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins were among his admirers) and kept producing hits for a decade.

Jordan recorded and performed for some 45 years, and even though the hits stopped coming in the early 1950s, he still made some great records until just a few months before his death.

His last two records — one made with the bandleader Johnny Otis in 1972 and another in Paris for the Black and Blue Label in 1973, when he was 65 years old and just 16 months before his death — are among my favorites.

Even when tastes changed, his voice remained youthful and his musicianship never wavered. He did superior work in the 1950s, much of it released on “No Moe,” almost all of it arranged by Quincy Jones with first-rate musicians. It’s a treat to hear Jordan in stereo.

There was some fair-to-middling stuff in the 60s, but his last two records are about as good as the ones he made 30 years earlier.

The confusingly titled “The Essential Recordings” was made in 1972 with Johnny Otis playing and producing and shows his evolution toward deep blues and soul (“Helping Hand” and “I’m a Good Thing”).

Also worth getting is his last recording, made in Paris in November 1973, “I Believe in Music,” from Evidence, which also includes six instrumentals with three important Chicago bluesmen, brothers Louis and Dave Meyers and Fred Below.

Jordan traveled the country and the world, making a decent living, although he would have done much better had he lived another decade as more opportunities would have opened up for him.

But he was not well. After decades of performing and traveling, he was worn out: He had heart disease and, like most musicians, had no insurance, according to his biographer, John Chilton, whose book “Let the Good Times Roll” gives a good account of his life, from Brinkley to Los Angeles, where he died from a second heart attack in February 1975.

Lou Rawls sang “A Closer Walk with Thee” at the funeral service in L.A. Jordan is buried in St. Louis.

See you at the Saturday night fish fry.