As the end of the year approaches JRM has asked George Hansen to look back over the best blues releases of 2002. This is his take on what was hot in the last twelve months-
"GOIN' DOWN TO ELI'S--THE COBRA & ABCO RHYTHM & BLUES ANTHOLOGY
1956-1958" WESTSIDE 868 $17.99
This is an amazing collection of recordings from the late 50s recorded and released by the legendary short-lived labels Cobra and Abco. Equally famous and infamous were the two men behind the scenes of these labels, Willie Dixon (who played, produced and wrote the lion's share of material covered by the label's artists) and their colorful owner, Eli Toscano (whose mysterious death shortly after the labels folded is still the subject of legendary speculation).
The majority of musicians represented on this set were, for the most part, seasoned players including Sunnyland Slim (his Cobra version of "Highway 61" is quite literally a steamroller ride of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' `n Tumblin'" fueled by earthshaking harmonica work recklessly delivered by Walter Horton), (Walter) Shakey Horton ("Have a Good Time"), Guitar Shorty, Lee Jackson, Little Willie Foster, Memphis Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson ("moonlighting" from Chess Records) and the great rock `n roll R&B singer, Harold Burrage.
For fans of electric Chicago postwar blues, this set is absolutely essential!
MAGIC SAM "ROCKIN' WILD IN CHICAGO" DELMARK 765 $16.99
As most fans of Chicago's illustrious Westside guitarslingers already know, the late Magic Sam was one of the most prolific and influential "Young Lions" performing in the little smokey clubs sprinkled all around this notorious area of the Windy City. His first recordings for the tiny Cobra label still sound as fresh and powerful as they did back in the late 50s, but it wasn't until the late 60s when he would actually record his first full-length album for Delmark Records ("West Side Soul" Delmark 615-$11.99). This groundbreaking record soon became a favorite amongst young white blues fans and Sam's appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 ("Magic Sam Live" Delmark 645-$14.99) cemented his young legacy.
This CD has three live sets recorded at three different venues from 1963, 1966 and 1968 respectively. All three sets clearly illustrate Sam's great showmanship as well as his unique minor key guitar style and smooth as silk singing. The material performed were for the most part workhorses of Chicago's South and Westside musicians including such chestnuts as Roscoe Gordon's driving "Just A Little Bit", Freddy King's "Tore Down", Muddy Waters' "Further On Up the Road" and "Got My Mojo Working" as well as Sam's own songs from his small 78/45 output of the late 50s and 60s.
For recordings that were done on a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, these are particularly good and clear despite the obvious limitations of the equipment. Sam's vibrant music stands head and shoulders above this minor flaw and come SHINING THROUGH LOUD AND CLEAR!
This is another essential record--especially for electric guitar fans!
MEMPHIS SLIM AND HIS HOUSE ROCKERS "THE COME BACK" DELMARK 762 $14.99
This CD is the long awaited second volume of Memphis Slim's United Records recordings of the early 50s featuring the dazzling guitar work of a very young and exciting Matt "Guitar" Murphy. Along with the previously issued (only on 78 and 45 RPM) recordings are a handful of fabulous unissued takes. Slim recorded hundreds of records during his long prolific career, but this period is the one where he hit his stride!
MISSISSIPPI FRED McDOWELL & JOHNNY WOODS "MAMA SAYS I'M CRAZY" FAT POSSUM 80364 $16.99
A truly spectacular recording from 1967 with the great slide guitarist/singer Fred McDowell at the height of his powers accompanied by Johnny Woods' raw pumping country blues harmonica. The two perform a set of undiluted no-frills acoustic music featuring such prewar blues classics as"Shake `Em On Down" and "John Henry" along with material as diverse (yet powerful!!) as a rollicking rendtion of Ray Charles' monster hit "I've Got A Woman". This is the real shit!!
THE USA RECORDS BLUES STORY FUEL 302 061 0872 $17.99
USA Records was another small independent Chicago-based label who recorded not only local rock musicians (and actually had a hit record with the Buckinghams), but blues artists as well. This compilation represents the best of the old artists who had recorded for Chess and Vee Jay (Willie Mabon, Detroit Jr. and J.B. Lenoir) and the up and coming younger Turks with little or no recording experience/output (Eddy Clearwater, Mighty Joe Young, Koko Taylor and Jimmy Burns). This anthology represents an interesting period of blues recording(s) in Chicago when the larger Chess and Vee Jay labels were reaping the benefits of a new mainly young white audience discovering Howlin' Wolf, Muddy, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed while ignoring lesser known musicians. The independents took the bull by the horns and despite poor sales and distribution, they thankfully filled a void for local consumption (with hopes of national success).
These recordings are full of energy reflecting a thriving scene supported by dozens of clubs and taverns in Chicago's black community of the mid-60s. A great representation of a lost period in musical history.
JUNIOR WELLS "CALLING ALL BLUES" FUEL 302 661 0872 $18.99
These are truly powerful recordings representing a very seasoned young Junior Wells. Junior had already been cutting his teeth in Chicago's Southside taverns for almost a decade when he recorded these marvelous sides for the tiny independent labels Chief, Profile and USA. Blues music was rarely heard live or on the jukebox in the Windy City's Northside bars with the few exceptions being Big John's, Mother Blues and the Fickle Pickle and these recordings represent the tough no-bullshit music that Junior sang and played night after night at Theresa's and other Southside clubs. This is another essential set for Chicago postwar blues and harmonica fans!
SMOKEY SMOTHERS "SINGS THE BACKPORCH BLUES" ACE/KING 858 $18.99
This CD is essential simply because the first and only issue of the original King/Federal album suffered from poor distribution and has always been extremely rare! Smokey is one of those "unknown heroes" of Chicago blues history who passed away without much fanfare (except in the Windy City) who only recorded a handful of singles and two full LPs. Freddy King is featured on this album, but mainly as an ensemble player who knows when and where to shine. This isn't exactly "backporch blues" but rather an interesting glimpse into good and tasteful bar-room blues.
JOHN LEE HOOKER "LIVE AT SUGAR HILL VOL. 2" FANTASY 7714-2 $16.99
This selection of live bare-bones acoustic recordings from 1962 clearly illustrate why John Lee Hooker was one of the greatest blues singers/guitarists of all time. Without a band or electric guitar, Hooker plows through this material with unbelivable power and conviction. A great addition to any blues and/or John Lee Hooker fan's library.
"GATEMOUTH" BROWN 1947-1951 CLASSICS 5030 $16.99
These days Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown may resent being labeled as "a bluesman" rather than "a musician", but as these wonderful cuts of his earliest recorded work testify he was without a doubt one of the most creative and influential electric guitars players of all time. Brown's technique was obviously influenced by jazz legend/guitarist Charlie Christian but this was just a springboard for a musician who quickly combined finese with raw power and emotion. Tracks such as "Gatemouth Boogie", "Atomic Energy" and "Boogie Ramble" still sound as fresh and exciting as they must have over 50 years ago blaring from a jukejoint's jukebox. An musthave addition to every blues and/or guitar player's collection!!