Monday, February 28, 2011

The Boss

Big Joe Turner- Volume 2 (1940-1941)

"The premier blues shouter of the postwar era, Big Joe Turner's roar could rattle the very foundation of any gin joint he sang within -- and that's without a microphone. Turner was a resilient figure in the history of blues -- he effortlessly spanned boogie-woogie, jump blues, even the first wave of rock & roll, enjoying great success in each genre.

Turner, whose powerful physique certainly matched his vocal might, was a product of the swinging, wide-open Kansas City scene. Even in his teens, the big-boned Turner looked entirely mature enough to gain entry to various K.C. niteries. He ended up simultaneously tending bar and singing the blues before hooking up with boogie piano master Pete Johnson during the early '30s. Theirs was a partnership that would endure for 13 years.

The pair initially traveled to New York at John Hammond's behest in 1936. On December 23, 1938, they appeared on the fabled Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall on a bill with Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Count Basie. Turner and Johnson performed "Low Down Dog" and "It's All Right, Baby" on the historic show, kicking off a boogie-woogie craze that landed them a long-running slot at the Cafe Society (along with piano giants Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons).

As 1938 came to a close, Turner and Johnson waxed the thundering "Roll 'Em Pete" for Vocalion. It was a thrilling up-tempo number anchored by Johnson's crashing 88s, and Turner would re-record it many times over the decades. Turner and Johnson waxed their seminal blues "Cherry Red" the next year for Vocalion with trumpeter Hot Lips Page and a full combo in support. In 1940, the massive shouter moved over to Decca and cut "Piney Brown Blues" with Johnson rippling the ivories. But not all of Turner's Decca sides teamed him with Johnson; Willie "The Lion" Smith accompanied him on the mournful "Careless Love," while Freddie Slack's Trio provided backing for "Rocks in My Bed" in 1941.

Turner ventured out to the West Coast during the war years, building quite a following while ensconced on the L.A. circuit. In 1945, he signed on with National Records and cut some fine small combo platters under Herb Abramson's supervision. Turner remained with National through 1947, belting an exuberant "My Gal's a Jockey" that became his first national R&B smash. Contracts didn't stop him from waxing an incredibly risqué two-part "Around the Clock" for the aptly named Stag imprint (as Big Vernon!) in 1947. There were also solid sessions for Aladdin that year that included a wild vocal duel with one of Turner's principal rivals, Wynonie Harris, on the ribald two-part "Battle of the Blues."

Few West Coast indie labels of the late '40s didn't boast at least one or two Turner titles in their catalogs. The shouter bounced from RPM to Down Beat/Swing Time to MGM (all those dates were anchored by Johnson's piano) to Texas-based Freedom (which moved some of their masters to Specialty) to Imperial in 1950 (his New Orleans backing crew there included a young Fats Domino on piano). But apart from the 1950 Freedom 78, "Still in the Dark," none of Turner's records were selling particularly well. When Atlantic Records bosses Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun fortuitously dropped by the Apollo Theater to check out Count Basie's band one day, they discovered that Turner had temporarily replaced Jimmy Rushing as the Basie band's frontman, and he was having a tough go of it. Atlantic picked up his spirits by picking up his recording contract, and Turner's heyday was about to commence.

At Turner's first Atlantic date in April of 1951, he imparted a gorgeously world-weary reading to the moving blues ballad "Chains of Love" (co-penned by Ertegun and pianist Harry Van Walls) that restored him to the uppermost reaches of the R&B charts. From there, the hits came in droves: "Chill Is On," "Sweet Sixteen" (yeah, the same downbeat blues B.B. King's usually associated with; Turner did it first), and "Don't You Cry" were all done in New York, and all hit big.

Turner had no problem whatsoever adapting his prodigious pipes to whatever regional setting he was in. In 1953, he cut his first R&B chart-topper, the storming rocker "Honey Hush" (later covered by Johnny Burnette and Jerry Lee Lewis), in New Orleans, with trombonist Pluma Davis and tenor saxman Lee Allen in rip-roaring support. Before the year was through, he stopped off in Chicago to record with slide guitarist Elmore James' considerably rougher-edged combo and hit again with the salacious "T.V. Mama."

Prolific Atlantic house writer Jesse Stone was the source of Turner's biggest smash of all, "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which proved his second chart-topper in 1954. With the Atlantic braintrust reportedly chiming in on the chorus behind Turner's rumbling lead, the song sported enough pop possibilities to merit a considerably cleaned-up cover by Bill Haley & the Comets (and a subsequent version by Elvis Presley that came a lot closer to the original leering intent).

Suddenly, at the age of 43, Turner was a rock star. His jumping follow-ups -- "Well All Right," "Flip Flop and Fly," "Hide and Seek," "Morning, Noon and Night," "The Chicken and the Hawk" -- all mined the same good-time groove as "Shake, Rattle and Roll," with crisp backing from New York's top session aces and typically superb production by Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.

Turner turned up on a couple episodes of the groundbreaking TV program Showtime at the Apollo during the mid-'50s, commanding center stage with a joyous rendition of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in front of saxman Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams' band. Nor was the silver screen immune to his considerable charms: Turner mimed a couple of numbers in the 1957 film Shake Rattle & Rock (Fats Domino and Mike "Mannix" Connors also starred in the flick).

Updating the pre-war number "Corrine Corrina" was an inspired notion that provided Turner with another massive seller in 1956. But after the two-sided hit "Rock a While"/"Lipstick Powder and Paint" later that year, his Atlantic output swiftly faded from commercial acceptance. Atlantic's recording strategy wisely involved recording Turner in a jazzier setting for the adult-oriented album market; to that end, a Kansas City-styled set (with his former partner Johnson at the piano stool) was laid down in 1956 and remains a linchpin of his legacy.

Turner stayed on at Atlantic into 1959, but nobody bought his violin-enriched remake of "Chains of Love" (on the other hand, a revival of "Honey Hush" with King Curtis blowing a scorching sax break from the same session was a gem in its own right). The '60s didn't produce too much of lasting substance for the shouter -- he actually cut an album with longtime admirer Haley and his latest batch of Comets in Mexico City in 1966!

But by the tail end of the decade, Turner's essential contributions to blues history were beginning to receive proper recognition; he cut LPs for BluesWay and Blues Time. During the '70s and '80s, Turner recorded prolifically for Norman Granz's jazz-oriented Pablo label. These were super-relaxed impromptu sessions that often paired the allegedly illiterate shouter with various jazz luminaries in what amountebd to loosely run jam sessions. Turner contentedly roared the familiar lyrics of one or another of his hits, then sat back while somebody took a lengthy solo. Other notable album projects included a 1983 collaboration with Roomful of Blues, Blues Train, for Muse. Although health problems and the size of his humongous frame forced him to sit down during his latter-day performances, Turner continued to tour until shortly before his death in 1985. They called him the Boss of the Blues, and the appellation was truly a fitting one: when Turner shouted a lyric, you were definitely at his beck and call."

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Stokes' Dream

Frank Stokes- The Best Of Frank Stokes

Album Review:
"The music -- a meld of blues and older, more satiric songster-inspired material, as well as gospel-influenced sides -- speaks for itself on this, the widest-ranging and best-sounding collection of Frank Stokes' work issued on CD. The Best of Frank Stokes, released by Yazoo, combines the highlights of such previous releases as Frank Stokes' Dream and Creator of the Memphis Blues, for a total of six solo sides by Stokes, a dozen by Stokes accompanied by Dan Sane (usually credited to the Beale Street Sheiks), and four more on which he is accompanied by Will Batts on the fiddle. The result is a brilliant showcase for the Memphis blues legend, though with some inevitable shortcomings. As producer Richard Nevins freely admits in his opening annotation, virtually every copy of most of Stokes' original records were marred by pressing flaws (even in otherwise perfect discs) that make for a certain amount of noise -- coming out as hiss -- in the background on playback. Additionally, because many of Stokes' sides were recorded in a hall that was much too large for solo- or duet-performing acoustics, and didn't have the guitars mic'ed properly, the instruments do have a slightly boomy quality, without the presence and impact that one would expect. That said, the widely varying dynamics of the vocals have been balanced out here, so that this CD does, indeed, sound significantly better than the original 78's in at least one essential respect."

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Slidin' Delta

David "Honeyboy" Edwards- Crawling Kingsnake

Album Review:
"Any fan of Delta blues should grab this reissue as fast they can get to it. These are vintage recordings, mostly from 1967, made by scholar-producer Pete Welding when Edwards was 51 years old. Edwards' itinerant lifestyle resulted in his missing many opportunities to record, so that this was only the fifth session he'd had in over 30 years in music, performing solo, with an acoustic guitar on eight of the 13 cuts here. Edwards cuts a daunting figure on the guitar, making the strings sing in several voices at once (check out the playing on "Love Me Over Slow"), and his singing is a match for his playing. The eight solo numbers, dating from 1967, feature the music he was most familiar with, including Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" and the title track of this collection. The rest date from a March 1964 session on which Edwards shares the spotlight with singer-harpist John Lee Henley. As a bonus, the last track is an interview from his 1967 solo session in which Edwards talks about Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson, both of whom he knew personally. The background ambient sound does nothing to detract from the worth of the music, which has a wonderful raw quality."

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Furry's Blues

Furry Lewis- Presenting The Country Blues

"Furry Lewis was the only blues singer of the 1920s to achieve major media attention in the '60s and '70s. One of the most recorded Memphis-based guitarists of the late '20s, Lewis' subsequent fame 40 years later was based largely on the strength of those early sides. One of the very best blues storytellers, and an extremely nimble-fingered guitarist into his seventies, he was equally adept at blues and ragtime, and made the most out of an understated, rather than an overtly flamboyant style.

Walter Lewis was born in Greenwood, MS, sometime between 1893 and 1900 -- the exact year is in dispute, as Lewis altered this more than once. The Lewis family moved to Memphis when he was seven years old, and Lewis made his home there for the remainder of his life. He got the name "Furry" while still a boy, bestowed on him by other children. Lewis built his first guitar when he was still a child from scraps he found around the family's home. His only admitted mentor was a local guitarist whom he knew as "Blind Joe," who may have come from Arkansas, a denizen of Memphis' Brinkley Street, where the family resided. The middle-aged Blind Joe was Lewis' source for the songs "Casey Jones" and "John Henry," among other traditional numbers. The loss of a leg in a railroad accident in 1917 doesn't seem to have slowed his life or career down; in fact, it hastened his entry into professional music, because he assumed that there was no gainful employment open to crippled, uneducated Blacks in Memphis. Lewis' real musical start took place on Beale Street in the late teens, where he began his career. He picked up bottleneck playing early on, and tried to learn the harmonica but never quite got the hang of it. Lewis started playing traveling medicine shows, and it was in this setting that he began showing off an uncommonly flashy visual style, including playing the guitar behind his head.

Lewis' recording career began in April 1927, with a trip to Chicago with fellow guitarist Landers Walton to record for the Vocalion label, which resulted in five songs, also featuring mandolin player Charles Jackson on three of the numbers. The songs proved that Lewis was a natural in the recording studio, playing to the microphone as easily as he did to audiences in person, but they were not, strictly speaking, representative of Lewis' usual sound, because they featured two backup musicians. In October of 1927, Lewis was back in Chicago to cut six more songs, this time with nothing but his voice and his own guitar. He seldom played with anyone else, partly because of his loose bar structures, which made it very difficult for anyone to follow him. The interplay of his voice and guitar, on record and in person, made him a very effective showman in both venues. Lewis' records, however, did not sell well, and he never developed more than a cult following in and around Memphis. A few of his records, however, lingered in the memory far beyond their relatively modest sales, most notably "John Henry" and "Kassie Jones, Pts. 1 & 2," arguably one of the great blues recordings of the '20s.

Lewis gave up music as a profession during the mid-'30s, when the Depression reduced the market for country-blues. He never made a living from his music -- fortunately, he found work as a municipal laborer in Memphis during the '20s, and continued in this capacity right into the '60s. His brand of acoustic country blues was hopelessly out of style in Memphis during the postwar years, and he didn't even try to revive his recording or professional performing career. In the intervening years, he played for friends and relatives, living in obscurity and reasonably satisfied. At the end of the '50s, however, folksong/blues scholar Sam Charters discovered Lewis and persuaded him to resume his music career. In the interim, all of the blues stars who'd made their careers in Memphis during the '30s had passed on or retired, and Lewis was a living repository of styles and songs that, otherwise, were scarcely within living memory of most Americans.

Lewis returned to the studio under Charters' direction and cut two albums for the Prestige/Bluesville labels in 1961. These showed Lewis in excellent form, his voice as good as ever and his technique on the guitar still dazzling. Audiences -- initially hardcore blues and folk enthusiasts, and later more casual listeners -- were delighted, fascinated, charmed, and deeply moved by what they heard. Gradually, as the '60s and the ensuing blues boom wore on, Lewis emerged as one of the favorite rediscovered stars from the '30s, playing festivals, appearing on talk shows, and being interviewed. He proved to be a skilled public figure, regaling audiences with stories of his life that were both funny and poignantly revealing, claiming certain achievements (such as being the inventor of bottleneck guitar) in dubious manner, and delighting the public. After his retirement from working for the city of Memphis, he also taught in an anti-poverty program in the city.

Furry Lewis became a blues celebrity during the '70s, following a profile in Playboy magazine and appearances on The Tonight Show, and managed a few film and television appearances, including one as himself in the Burt Reynolds action/comedy W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings. By this time, he had several new recordings to his credit, and if the material wasn't as vital as the sides he'd cut at the end of the '20s, it was still valid and exceptionally fine blues, and paid him some money for his efforts. Lewis died in 1981 a beloved figure and a recognized giant in the world of blues. His music continued to sell well, attracting new listeners many years later."

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The True Vine

Reverend Gary Davis- Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964

Album Review:
"Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972) cut his first records during the '30s, established his early mature style with a new spate of records in the mid-'40s, doggedly persevered and was roundly "rediscovered" by the folk and blues revivalists of the late '50s and early '60s. On May 8, 1964 the Rev, on tour with something called the Blues and Gospel Caravan, was recorded in live performance with his Gibson guitar at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England. In 2008 Document released a compact disc containing all of the music known to have been taped during that set. This is a revealing and wonderfully honest album of traditional songs, including "If I Had My Way," a ritual first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson decades earlier and lucratively covered by the Caucasian folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary. Also present at the Free Trade Hall was whoop-and-holler harmonica ace Sonny Terry, an expressive performer who exchanges words and blows up a duet with Davis on "The Sun is Going Down" and solos at length on "Coon Hunt." Davis alternately sang both sacred as well as bracingly worldly blues tunes, and also tapped into his own early roots with the "Cincinnati Flow Rag" and Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," syncopated episodes that, along with everything else on this excellent album, link him directly to old time ragtime/blues guitar legends Henry Thomas, Blind Boy Fuller, and Blind Blake."

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