Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson : Sing It !
Louis Armstrong :
The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
Chick Corea Quartet : Time Warp
Miles Davis : The Complete Bitches
Oliver Nelson : The Blues and the Abstract
Duke Robillard : Plays Jazz :
The Rounder Years / Johnny
Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis : Tough Tenors back again !
Malachi Thompson : Rising Daystar
From Spirituals to Swing
(I Got No Kick Against)
Modern Jazz : A GRP Artists’ Celebration of the Songs of the Beatles.
At the age of 85, Robert Lockwood, Jr. is still a
superb guitarist and strong vocalist. When with his band, he favors
a jazzy approach, but when in a solo context, as on this CD, he follows
the footsteps of his stepfather, Robert Johnson, the most legendary figure
in blues. Though Johnson died in 1938 and recorded only 29 songs
(and a few alternate takes), his stature-based on his stunning music and
a perception of his life as a doomed, haunted bluesman-has risen to the
point that his is nearly the only name that many people know from early
blues history. From him, Lockwood learned the Mississippi downhome
style in its most intricate and captivating form, and almost half of the
songs on Delta Crossroads, whose very title invokes Johnson’s mythic life,
are his. One of them, “Mr. Downchild,” was never recorded by Johnson.
Five songs on the album are Lockwood originals, and Leroy Carr, Lightnin’
Hopkins, and Jazz Gillum are the sources of the others.
Because of his relationship with Johnson, which spanned
about ten years, Lockwood has provided information for researchers and
delight for blues fans (see this website’s book review of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ :
The Postwar Blues Guitarists). As a powerful musical mind, Lockwood
has added subtle and intriguing nuances of his own. One of them is
his choice of the 12-string guitar, used throughout the album. Fans
of the one man-one guitar acoustic sound of delta blues will appreciate
this strong recording by a master musician. Impatient channel-surfers
craving dazzling effects or hair-raising thrills are cautioned to avoid
Little Walter revolutionized blues harmonica
playing. While a member of Muddy Water’s groundbreaking early band,
Walter cut “Juke,” an instrumental the band had been using for a break
song. When the song hit #1 on the R&B charts in 1952, he left
Water’s band (Junior Wells replaced him) and went on tour under his own
name. “My Babe,” written by Willie Dixon, also hit #1, and by 1959
Walter had placed eight other songs on the R&B charts. His sessions
featured a long list of famous blues men.
If you’re into the blues, you need to know Little
Walter’s music. Unless you’re already converted though, you don’t
need this album. Attractively packaged with colour photos, a biography
with interview quotes, and complete session details, this double CD presents
40 tracks including many of his best-known numbers : his two #1’s, the title
song, and others. However, these (and additional songs), are alternate
takes, and the remaining tracks are mostly previously unreleased.
If you do know and love Walter’s repertory, this
set will be intriguing—the alternate of “Juke” is especially fascinating.
Despite occasional mistakes and miscalculations, the album contains some
authentic, powerful Chicago blues, but if you’re new to him, start with
a “best-of” album, not this “rest-of.”
The Great Tomato Blues Package, a 2-CD set originally
released in 1989, now appears on the Just A Memory label. This serving
of 45 songs presents songs from the 1920s to the 1980s, and is particularly
strong on ones from ’50s and ’60s. While including pre-war and Chicago
blues, this is not a history of the blues as such. Also here are
tracks from the bluesy side of jazz, R&B, rock, rockabilly, soul, and
Blues is supposed to be about feeling downhearted
but is really a genre that talks about the experience of being human.
On this set we hear about emptiness, but also songs of loving, dancing,
and spiritual exultation, and singers who boast, advise, threaten, or just
think out loud. Roosevelt Sykes is content to sing his business card
in "Music Is My Business."
Blues royalty like Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James,
Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Koko
Taylor, and Lightnin’ Hopkins are represented, and by some of their most
classic recordings. An early B.B. King transferred from a vinyl copy
is about the only moment of unclear sound. A jazz side trip gives
us Jelly Roll Morton’s "Dead Man Blues," Louis Armstrong’s "St. Louis Blues,"
and tracks by Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker.
A few big names appear on live recordings.
Aretha Franklin is live and in church with "There is A Fountain," accompanied
by just her piano, an organist, and a congregation of encouragers.
Long tracks like "Hound Dog" by Big Mama Thornton and "Whole Lotta Shakin’
Goin’ On" by Jerry Lee Lewis show how the music can stretch out in front
of a sympathetic audience. John Lee Hooker takes the stretch prize
here with "Tupelo," a seven minute blues meditation on Elvis Presley and
his birthplace. Besides Jerry Lee Lewis, we have other founders of
rock ’n’ roll—Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and
Carl Perkins—all with big hits.
A real bonus is the inclusion of rarely heard soulful
songs that once hit high in the pop charts. Into the top 40 went
Buster Brown’s "Fannie Mae" (1960) and Ike and Tina Turner’s "Poor Fool"
(1961). Making the top 20 were Don Garner and Dee Dee Ford’s "I Need
Your Lovin’" (1962) and Irma Thomas’s "I Wish Someone Would Care" (1964).
In the "hits we still hear" department are two #1’s : Wilbert Harrison’s
"Kansas City" (1959) and Percy Sledge’s "When A Man Loves A Woman" (1966).
Source versions of songs known to rock fans are Leadbelly’s
"Midnight Special" and Mississippi Fred McDowell "You Got To Move" (popularized
by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones, respectively).
Add in several more choice artists—Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Ray Charles,
and still others—and this set makes a dynamite set of jewels and minor
gems for anyone with a taste for the blues and its cousins. A booklet
with 21 pages of notes by Pete Welding, a former editor of Downbeat, puts
it all in perspective. Recommended.
I am familiar with and like all of these R&B vocalists from their individual recordings. Tracy Nelson I heard first, when she was in Mother Earth. Their first album in 1968 featured the Memphis Slim blues that gave the band its name, plus "Down So Low," a Nelson original that became one of her signature songs, and two from Irma Thomas’s repertoire. Sometime later I found out who Thomas was : not only one of Nelson’s inspirations and the source of the Rolling Stones’ "Time Is On My Side," but the Soul Queen of New Orleans. A disc of her 1960s’ recordings is one of our household’s favorites. Marcia Ball, a gutsy piano-playing Texan, I finally caught up to on her terrific 1997 album Let Me Play With Your Poodle, her fifth for Rounder. On Sing It ! they do : alone and together.
This album is a mixed blessing. The singing is good but rarely great, marred by occasional intonation problems and some emotional detachment. Besides a couple of weak ones, the songs, mostly new compositions by veteran writers, are good vehicles for the singers. Certain songs sport nice horn charts, and the band is fine, especially when laying into a New Orleans second-line feel. They just play too politely. My top song is among the slowest and simplest : "Heart to Heart," one of only two that feature Marcia on piano (Tracy plays piano on one only). This album might acquaint you with three great talents, and they had fun making it ; I wish the temperature had been higher though.
Louis Armstrong’s reputation as jazz royalty has
been secure in jazz circles for decades. For some of the general
public, however, images from mid-1960s TV variety shows of a trumpet-blowing,
clowning entertainer singing “Hello, Dolly !” and “Mame” while mopping his
face with a handkerchief have precluded an understanding of the man’s true
Both the jazz expert and the novice will be rewarded
by hearing Louis Armstrong : The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings,
a four-CD box set. These are the 1920s recordings with which Armstrong
made his reputation and altered the course of jazz. Though the music
now sounds quaint, with instruments that have gone out of fashion, like
the banjo, tuba, and even clarinet, it remains profound, poignant, thrilling,
and at times, uplifting. The rich tone of Armstrong’s trumpet and
singing voice are enjoyable, as is the remarkable rhythmic assurance of
his imaginative solos. Each of the other musicians, particularly
clarinetist Johnny Dodds, adds their own special personality to the mix.
The interaction between players, however, owes much of its verve to Armstrong.
The album contains many justly famous tracks, including “West End Blues,”
musical perfection from start to finish, “Potato Head Blues,” with its
delightful stop-time solos, “Heebie Jeebies,” with Armstrong’s masterful
and humorous scat singing, and “Weatherbird,” a duet in total rapport with
pianist Earl Hines. Additionally, there is much bonus material, a
few rare takes, and a “pitch corrected” version of “Cornet Chop Suey.”
Across the 89 tracks-more than four hours-not only
is the shift from dixieland towards swing clearly discernable, but one
can observe other developments. Among them are the improving abilities
of Armstrong and his accompanists, and the expansion of the repertoire
to include pop songs among the blues, dance, and novelty songs. The
album includes photos, discographical details, and essays full of interesting
information and informed opinion.
Without doubt, the box set is worthy of your money
and concentration. However, in trying to serve two audiences-directly
addressed in the booklet as “lay people” and “purists”-the compilers have
made some questionable decisions in its promotion, writing, and even track
sequencing. These decisions can be somewhat forgiven as they are
primarily the products of unbridled enthusiasm, the very quality that allowed
this product to come to fruition. Nonetheless they require commentary.
The magazine ad for Louis Armstrong : The Complete
Hot Five and Seven Recordings states : “This box contains certainly the
most important jazz recordings-if not the most important recordings-of
the 20th century.” I am not going to say they are not important-the
collection has already won the 2001 Grammy for Best Historical Album-but
this kind of sloganeering is the blathering, if not of a zealous fan, then
a reductionist writer of advertisement copy. The box’s outer sleeve
(which incidentally acts as a protective device to keep the four CDs from
falling out of their ill-conceived holder), says : “At the banquet table
of 20th century creative wonders-Picasso’s Cubist Period, late-period Yeats,
the cinema of Kurosawa, Monet’s ‘Water Lillies,’-the Hot Fives and Sevens
have an honored place.” Of course record companies need to sell records,
but this is connoisseur snobbism masquerading as sophistication. At the
least, we can see from the proliferation of jazz coffee table books and
jazz coffee table box sets like this one, that the genre has been successfully
elevated not just from the saloons to the concert halls and into the academy-that
took place decades ago-but to a prominent display location in the gallery
shop of the Hall of Fame of Art on Earth. This is the post-modern
erasure of the (artificially created) distinction between so-called highbrow
and lowbrow art. That is not a bad thing, but it is, unfortunately,
consumerism that has done much of the job.
Some of the writing in the booklet, obviously aimed
at the “lay people,” I find long winded and a trifle condescending, but
my main quibble is with the track sequencing. For a set that so obviously
demonstrates how the musicians and the genre evolved, it is a shame that
the tunes are not in chronological order. The compilers have chosen to
present the music thematically first and chronologically (for the most
part) within the themes. Thus, all of the Hot Fives are together
on the first two discs, and the Hot Sevens are elsewhere, on the third
disc. In fact, the Hot Sevens, all from a one-week period in 1927
when the ensemble had two more players, took place in the middle of the
story. The two versions of “Cornet Chop Suey” are 37 tracks apart.
The thematic sequencing requires several notes explaining the new sequence
and attempting, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to justify it.
Jazz writers have been discussing the Hot Fives and
Hot Sevens for decades. The recordings have never gone out of print,
being presented in one form or another since their first manufacture as
78 RPM discs. The consensus is that the main body of work-33 tunes
by ensembles using the Hot Five name and 11 by the Hot Seven-is unquestionably
commendable and essential. The writers also acknowledge that the
many glorious musical moments are contrasted with numerous weak ones.
These too are worth hearing, for they actually serve to underline the great
ones. This box set is a treasure trove of good listening for anyone
who finds charm in the sound of early jazz, and the archival care taken
to make this old music sound its best is impressive and appreciated.
Keyboardist Corea leads an all-acoustic group through
another of his adventures. Like some of his earlier albums, The Leprechaun
(‘75) and The Mad Hatter (‘78) for example, this one is tied to a theme.
Time Warp’s theme is an unappealing tale, presented in the notes, of a
man slipping into a science fiction reverie, thus such titles as “Arndok’s
Grave” and “One World Over.” Like most program music, the connection
between the instrumental music and the story is whatever you make it.
I didn’t make much of it.
Corea’s assembled an excellent group of musicians :
Bob Berg (sax), John Patitucci (acoustic bass), and Gary Novak (drums),
and all get spotlight time for an unaccompanied solo. He’s also assembled
a strong support team, and named are his attorney, several managers (personal,
assistant, studio, tour), his agent, and people involved in publishing,
fan mail, and the mechandising of instructional videos, T-shirts, etc.
So he’s got his act together.
But what about the music ? It’s virtuosic and
exploratory modern jazz, at times ethereal, with touches of latin and classical,
mostly satisfying and beautifully recorded. Highlights include the
title track and Pattitucci’s bowed bass solo, but other tracks lost me
with too much cascading and relentless shifting around.
First released in 1970, Bitches Brew really shook
things up. Miles Davis had been listening to rock (Hendrix, Santana),
funk (James Brown, Sly Stone), soul (Temptations, Marvin Gaye), as well
as the Beatles’ studio manipulations and the compositions of Stockhausen.
Davis created a large ensemble by adding guests to his regular band, and
over a three-day period in August 1969, recorded six long and unusual pieces.
He wouldn’t let them be edited, so they came out on a double album.
This was new music : repetitive bass lines, thick instrumentation (two
bassists, two drummers plus percussionists, three electric pianos), textures
from spacey to soupy, and collective improvisation over non-jazz rhythms.
Some Davis fans stopped listening to him at this point. New listeners
replaced them. With Davis performing at rock halls like the Fillmore
auditoriums, the new format of FM rock radio embraced his new music.
Now considered the first jazz-rock fusion record,
it became Davis’ first gold album and won him his second Grammy award.
It has now been given deluxe treatment in a 4-CD edition. This attractive
package contains the original album and 15 further selections from sessions
held between November and February 1970. Of those tracks, three appeared
on Big Fun (1974), three elsewhere. Nine are unreleased until now.
All are worthy of inclusion. A booklet of more than 100 pages gives
biographical and discographical information and reminiscences.
The musicians present are some of the most famous
in jazz ; they became the elite of fusion. The regular band members-Wayne
Shorter (sax), Chick Corea (electric piano), Dave Holland (bass), and Jack
DeJohnette (drums)-are joined by, among others, John McLaughlin, Herbie
Hancock, Billy Cobham, Airto Moreira, and Joe Zawinul, who wrote six of
the tracks. Zawinul and Shorter soon formed Weather Report, and before
long all the others were pursuing their own projects as fusion developed
in the 1970s.
For those with an ear for the unusual, the history
of jazz, the evolution of Miles Davis, or a taste for finely-crafted, inspired,
and still-surprising music, this is required listening. In the original
liner notes to Bitches Brew, Ralph J. Gleason wrote "this music will change
the world." It did.
Reissued from a classic 1961 album, saxophonist Nelson
leads an all-star ensemble through a set of his well-crafted and arranged
pieces, all using the blues structure or the 32-form known as rhythm changes
(from its use in the song “I Got Rhythm”). Nelson extends these foundations
at times by spinning out rich motivic ideas in the harmonized ensemble
passages, drawing not just from the blues but bop and gospel as well, while
maintaining the usual format : head (statement of melody)+ series
of solos+ return to head.
The all-stars are Eric Dolphy (alto sax, flute),
Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and
Roy Haynes (drums). This is jacket-and-tie era chamber jazz, and
the legendary players get lots of time for solos, from cerebral and understated
to passionate let-’er-rip furious swing, with portions of angular exploration
“Stolen Moments” is now a standard, partly because
it appears in The Real Book, that bible of repertoire used by jazz players
worldwide. The other five tunes are also worthy : creative, warm,
smart, and expressive. The lovely fold-out CD packaging reproduces
the original notes. Recommended.
Imagine a downtown nightclub. Who’s on ?
Duke Robillard—used to play guitar with Roomful of Blues, made blues albums
on his own. He’s playing swing tonight though. You go down
a few stairs past a small cover charge into cozy, dim room. Round
tables, candles, favorite beverages, Tuesday night, not full. On
a low stage is the combo : Duke with piano, bass, drums, and sax.
Immediately you know they’re good. People talk
at the back, but you go up front to dig the band. It’s not too loud—the
drummer often plays with brushes—but full of presence. All acoustic
except the guitar : lightly amplified, no distortion. Couldn’t name
the tunes, but this kind of bluesy swing has been around for decades, and
everyone knows "Sweet Georgia Brown." The players stretch out, getting
a chance to blow, trade fours. You hear music like this all the time,
but this is the real thing : they have chops, know where they’re going,
listen to each other, rise and fall together. Tasty !
Impressed, you return Thursday with a couple of friends.
There are more people in the club, and more on stage : now four horn players.
They don’t fill all the holes so the sense of clarity remains, just more
colors. Three saxes (alto, tenor, bari), one doubles clarinet, another
vibes, plus a cornet. Like the other night Duke sings occasionally,
but it’s his guitar playing that sparkles.
You buy the CD, Duke Robillard Plays Jazz—The Rounder
Years (a reissue from two albums : 1986 and 1990 studio sessions).
You play it often, for your spouse during candlelit dinners, for a cocktail
party (have to turn it up a little), but when listening alone it reminds
you of a couple of great nights out.
Same imaginary nightclub, different week. Now
it’s Friday and the place is packed and steamy. On the stand are
two tenor sax players, Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and their
rhythm section. The tensions of the week are melted by fiery solos ;
they swing like mad, spurring each other on. They play a lot of blues
with a bop fluency. The crowd sways, yells encouragements.
The tunes are about ten minutes long. Some are really fast but the
energy is up : these guys are burning ! The piece you recognize is
Lester Young’s "Lester Leaps In." The CD you buy is Tough Tenors
back again ! (a new issue of live 1984 Copenhagen recordings).
Your imaginary nightclub is now open anytime
you want to drop in. Your access key : those little shiny discs.
For his eighth CD as a leader, trumpeter Malachi
Thompson presents an wonderful program inspired by Lee Morgan, John Coltrane
(each with a tune named after them), and Miles Davis-“Nefertiti” is the
only non-original tune here. Thompson is backed by the Freebop Band,
a flexible unit of master musicians that he has led for more than 20 years.
This time out the lineup includes Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophones.
Dee Alexander sings on one track
After stints in New York and Washington DC, Thompson
is now back in his hometown of Chicago. While growing up there he
heard many jazz legends at the Sutherland Ballroom, a venue that has recently
been restored with Thompson’s help. One tune on this CD comes from
“The Sutherland,” playwright Charles Smith’s dramatization of that story,
one that is intertwined with Thompson’s own musical and spiritual journey.
This music is vital, playful, and exhilarating.
Grounded in tradition, it expands to include the experiences and the personalities
of the players. Truly fine ! Let the Rising Daystar shine its
everlovin’ light on you.
In the late 1930s, producer John Hammond did a subversive
thing : he presented black music to an integrated audience at New York’s
Carnegie Hall. With a concert that traced a line from Africa to swing
music-passing through blues and gospel-Hammond, then aged 28, thought he
could change people’s attitudes about music and about race. He did.
The concert was a daring, trailblazing, smash success.
A new triple-CD set presents nearly three hours-including
many more tracks than a previously available double vinyl album-from that
1938 concert and its triumphant sequel one year later. We hear gospel
from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and two magnificent acappella groups : Mitchell’s
Christian Singers and the Golden Gate Quartet. Blues is in abundance
with tracks by guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, harmonicist Sonny Terry, singers
Ida Cox, Joe Turner, and Jimmy Rushing, and three boogie woogie dynamos,
pianists Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis. Older
styles of jazz are represented by Sidney Bechet and James P. Johnson, newer
ones by Count Basie and Benny Goodman and their illustrious sidemen.
Among them are electric guitarist Charlie Christian, saxophonist Lester
Young (also heard on clarinet), trumpeter Hot Lips Page, vibraphonist Lionel
Hampton, and drummer Jo Jones.
John Hammond had found his stars by trolling the
radio waves and searching the country by car. Few of these performers
had ever played on a concert stage, and for some it was the first time
performing out of the South. The concerts not only boosted the morale
and careers of the artists, but led to the establishment of Blue Note records,
and for the fad for boogie woogie, which was soon taken up by big bands,
pop singers, country guitarists, and became a foundation of rock and roll.
At these concerts, some things now considered clichés
were new, and the freshness is almost palpable. For example, the
audience laughed at certain blues lyrics. They did because the lyrics
were striking and amusing, and sometimes, as when they laughed at Big Bill
Broonzy’s dream of getting rich and sitting in the president’s chair, tension
relieving, for the ludicrous image was a reminder of racial restriction.
At the time audiences, as well as musicians, were excited by hot improvised
solos, the 12-bar blues form, swing rhythms, jazzed up pop songs, virtuoso
folk performers, a woman (Tharpe) playing guitar, and the electric guitar
itself. Also fresh were 32-bar tunes with B-sections that traveled
around the circle of fifths. This chord progression is known as “rhythm
changes” after the piece that popularized it : “I Got Rhythm,” here played
by Benny Goodman. It was written only a few years before (1930),
by the Gershwin brothers.
For the quality of the music alone, the album would
be recommended without reservation— add its historical and social significance
and it is a must for all fans of the history of Afro-American music or
the roots of rock. The packaging is faultless, from the remastering
of the original acetate recordings and tape transfers, to the excellent
booklet and a reproduction of the original program. Kudos to all
The title is from the lyrics of Chuck Berry’s “Rock
and Roll Music” (which the Beatles covered) :
The jazz musicians on this CD have taken those sentiments
to heart, for we hear 14 Beatles songs (each by a different artist or ensemble),
and none are too darn fast, all retain their melody, and the only symphonic
sounds are occasional background strings.
The quality of the Beatles’ songs has allowed them
to survive all kinds of treatments from baroque to bluegrass. I feared
a muzak approach with this album but came to like most of it and can recommend
it, at least for those who like jazz and the Beatles. You will miss
the words, however, as vocals are rare.
There is variety in approach and the textures range
from solo piano to big band. In between are smoky slow-motion lounge
trios, and combos playing subdued funk that’s dreamy, even spooky at times.
The overall mood is relaxed and reflective ; almost all songs are four or
five minutes long. The CD is perfect for late nights or lazy afternoons,
as long as you skip over the dance version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,”
with female soul singers dropping in to sing the title (only) over drum
machine loops and between the horns and sitar.
The playing, arranging, recording quality, and improvising
are superb, as expected from the well-known names : pianists McCoy Tyner,
Ramsey Lewis, Chick Corea, Dave Grusin, guitarists George Benson and Lee
Ritenour, sax player Tom Scott, ensembles Groove Collective and Spyro Gyra,
and others who were new to me. Rewards repeated listenings.
Conservatory trained, Montreal piano player Mimi
Blais is a veteran of more than a decade on the the festival scene, where
her peers (the other pianists) call her Queen of Ragtime. Her confident
and very musical approach coupled with superb technique makes her passionate
playing one of the most satisfying listening experiences in contemporary
ragtime. She has been clearly recorded on a lovely sounding piano,
not the artificial sounding digital piano some current players use so they
can edit out their weaknesses on a computer screen.
This disc, in chronological order, covers compositions
from ragtime’s heyday and its revival. The old rag portion of the
program begins with Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag” of 1897, the first published
instrumental rag by a black composer. Before the first set ends with
Zez Confreys’s novelty rag “Kitten on the Keys” of 1921, Blais has played
her way through folk rags, stride style, pieces composed in London and
Montreal, and George Gershwin’s only rag.
Picking up the trail more than 60 years later, the
new rags begin with Galen Wilkes’ “The Last of the Ragtime Pioneers.”
The revival brought out a host of younger players to carry on, and their
new twists to the genre are represented by some fascinating compositions
until arriving finally at Blais’ own “The Monkey Rag” of 1999. There’s
a lot of good ragtime out now (and plenty of mediocre product), but this
disc is strictly the tops ! Note to ragtimers : get it, and see Mimi
Blais in concert if you get the chance.
I always loved getting a
new Beatles album. In the first years of Beatlemania, their latest
disc made a sure-fire hit as birthday or Christmas present from a favourite
aunt. When I got a little older, I stood in line with happy anticipation
at record stores. Their latest songs showed how they had forged ahead,
yet their music made perfect sense and seemed familiar on first hearing.
Each new album showed us where they were, up to that moment. The
Beatles album Live at the BBC (1994) shows us where they came from.
They came from American rock ’n’ roll, 1950s style.
Those who only know the Beatles from "Yesterday,"
"Hey Jude" and "Let It Be" on oldies stations may be forgiven for thinking
they were just a fluffy pop machine. The film Backbeat portrayed
the band’s scuffling days in Germany, when they were pill-popping toughs
pumping out rock ’n’ roll at grueling low-life gigs in Germany.
The new double CD has 56 songs, and more than half
are issued officially for the first time. All were recorded for Britsh
radio between 1963 and 1965, and many are from their night club repertoire.
A quarter of its songs are John Lennon-Paul McCartney originals, mostly
well-known hits. One song, though, is unfamiliar : "I’ll Be On My
Way," a song Paul gave to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas in 1963.
After 1965 they presented only their own songs, but until then their records
also contained cover versions. This album does the same.
Of the cover versions, fans will recognize several
from early albums-“Baby It’s You" (by the Shirelles), "Till There Was You"
(from the Broadway musical The Music Man), "A Taste Of Honey" (a pop ballad),
and "You Really Got A Hold On Me" (by the Miracles). Most of the
other covers presented on Live at the BBC are by the pioneers of rock ’n’
roll : the rockabillies and R&B singers who recorded for small American
independent labels. Some of these 45-RPM records were brought from
the USA back to Liverpool by local lads working on the steamships.
Elvis Presley recorded first for the Sun label in
Memphis : the Beatles do "That’s All Right (Mama)" and "I Forgot To Remember
To Forget." From Elvis’ first album on RCA in 1956 comes "I’m Going
To Sit Right Down and Cry Over You" and Ray Charles’ "I Got A Woman."
Another Sun rockabilly is Carl Perkins, always a
favourite of the Beatles. The BBC album has the familiar "Matchbox,"
"Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby," and the one Ringo Starr sings, "Honey
Don’t," plus two more Perkins songs : "Glad All Over" and "Sure To Fall
(In Love With You)." The latter Paul sang at the Beatles’ Decca audition.
Memphis was also the home of Johnny Burnette’s Rock ’n’ Roll Trio, a wild
rockabilly unit. The Beatles covered their "Lonesome Tears In My
Eyes," a latin rocker that John sings.
Buddy Holly passed through country music, then rockabilly,
before evolving his own style. He wrote "Crying, Waiting, Hoping,"
here sung by George Harrison. It had been the flipside of Holly’s
"Peggy Sue Got Married," a hit in England in 1959, six months after his
death. Holly’s band, the Crickets, carried on-as they do to this
day-and the Fab Four cover their "Don’t Ever Change" from 1962, written
by Carole King and her partner Gerry Goffin.
George does another rockabilly song : Eddie Fontaine’s
"Nothin’ Shakin’ (But the Leaves On the Trees)," which hit the charts in
1958. From the Bill Haley camp comes "Clarabella," and the Everly
Brothers are represented by "So How Come (No One Loves Me)," with John
and Paul singing in harmony throughout.
Chuck Berry recorded his classics for the Chess label
in Chicago. He’s been getting royalties from the Beatles’ covers
of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock and Roll Music" for years. Those
tunes are here again plus five more of his classic rockers from ’56-’58 :
"Too Much Monkey Business," "Johnny B. Goode," "Carol," "Sweet Little Sixteen,"
The Beatles are not known for their blues, but John sings and does
a harmonica solo on "I Got To Find My Baby," by harmonica ace Little Walter
who recorded it in 1954 for Chess.
Little Richard recorded for the New Orleans label
Specialty. "Lucille" and "Oooh My Soul" as done by the Beatles will
be unfamiliar, though not "Long Tall Sally." Larry Williams was also
on Specialty. Williams was a powerful R&B singer who had hits
in the late ’50s, including "Bony Maronie," though I first heard of him
when the Beatles covered three of his songs on their albums. "Slow
Down" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" show up again on the BBC album, while "Bad
Boy" does not.
Arthur Alexander was another great R&B singer
and composer the Beatles introduced me to. He had few hits in 1962,
recorded in his home state of Alabama. The Beatles covered "Anna,"
while the Rolling Stones did "You Better Move On." Bob Dylan covered
his “Sally Sue Brown” on Down in the Groove. On the BBC album the
Beatles do Alexander’s "Soldier of Love" and "A Shot Of Rhythm and Blues."
Alexander died in 1993 after coming out of 17 years of retirement with
a glorious come-back album.
Wilbert Harrison had a #1 hit with "Kansas City"
in 1959, and the Beatles version will already be familiar. The song
was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the same team that provided
Elvis with "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." They also wrote most
of the Coasters songs. The Beatles did at least three of them : "Three
Cool Cats" and "Searchin’" were done at their Decca audition. On
this album they do "Youngblood." Another song Leiber and Stoller
wrote was "Some Other Guy," sharing the credit with singer Richie Barrett.
That recording was not a hit, but it was popular in Liverpool and Manchester
and the song was recorded by the Searchers, Freddie and the Dreamers, and
others. Back in the days when Pete Best was the Beatles’ drummer,
"Some Other Guy" was often used as their opening song. He is back
on the touring circuit these days and the Pete Best Band still does as
great version of it.
Chan Romero’s "Hippy Hippy Shake" was another non-hit
that was popular in Liverpool. The Swinging Blue Jeans sent it back
to America with a Merseybeat flavour and took it into the charts in 1964.
The Teddy Bears’ "To Know Her Is To Love Her," sung
by by John as "To Know Him Is To Love Him," was a #1 hit in 1958.
It marked the recording debut of Phil Spector, the lyrics inspired by the
inscription on his father’s gravestone. Spector turned out to be
an eccentric genius who made a million before he turned 21, from producing
a string of teen hits. His trademark was the legendary "wall of sound,"
used on pop masterpieces by the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers,
Ike and Tina Turner, and others. In 1970, the reclusive Spector was
called on to make sense out of the Beatles rambling Let It Be sessions,
and subsequently produced tracks for solo Beatles, including "Imagine"
and "My Sweet Lord."
"The Honeymoon Song" comes from a 1959 film called
The Honeymoon. "I Just Don’t Understand" by Ann-Margaret was a top
20 pop hit from the early ’60s, as was Little Eva’s "Keep Your Hands Off
My Baby," which will now allow her to be remembered for something other
than "The Loco-motion."
So 30 years after it was recorded, and 24 years after
the last Beatles album, we finally get something new. Hearing this
repertoire enlarges our awareness of their beginnings, and will increase
the reputation-and royalty cheques-of many early rockers.
Their original producer George Martin is the executive
producer. The playing is up to Beatles’ usual high standards and
the sound has been cleaned up by the latest technology. The Beatles
set the pace for the whole pop scene. Their sound inspired their
peers, their hits became repertoire for local bands, and their album tracks
were mined for potential hits by other artists.
"Everything !" I would say if you asked me what I
like about the music-jazz, pop, gospel, folk, R&B, and country-on these
nine CDs. The word reminds me of a puzzling moment. Some years
ago in Nashville, while walking out of the Grand Ole Opry, I asked a friend
what he liked about the country music variety show we had just seen.
His "Everything !" struck me as excessively enthusiastic, a lack of discrimination.
Now I’m wondering if he had an abstract appreciation of culture or human
endeavor that transcended distinctions. Maybe he saw a preciousness
beyond mere like and dislike, a vision of a grand whole to which everything
we experienced that night belonged.
I sense something similar growing among aficionados
of earlier forms of recorded music. As time moves on and the roots
recede into history, "the great story," even the parts of it which some
of us lived through, is being told in wondrous, strange, and sometimes
unrecognizable ways. We always welcome wisdom, insight, and accuracy
in the curators of our musical heritage.
Allen Lowe deserves to be read (see his book American
Pop from Minstrel to Mojo : On Record 1893-1956, published by Cadence Jazz
Books, 1997 - click here for my review of this book) and his musical choices deserve to be heard by contemporary
fans of music history. Lowe’s achievement is a stimulating chronicle
of the evolution of American music. He lets good judgement rule the
song selection and lets time, not style, govern the sequencing. Thus
Robert Johnson’s dread-filled blues "If I Had Possession Over Judgement
Day" is followed on CD by the Chuck Wagon Gang’s solemn white gospel "The
Church In the Wildwood," recorded two days later (November 25, 1936).
Some of the others on that particular CD (1935-’38) are Count Basie, Gene
Autry, Duke Ellington, the Mills Brothers, Lydia Mendoza, Django Reinhardt,
Sonny Boy Williamson II, the Carter Family, Jimmie Lunceford, the Blue
Sky Boys, and Billie Holiday.
If you have trouble with a particular genre, you’ll
be clicking your remote a lot. But Lowe is hoping you will listen
to all of them. He has, and his moment of eureka fueled the project,
which includes the similarly-titled companion book mentioned above.
The notes in the audio package are a condensed version of the first 10
chapters of the book. Now we get to the big trouble : disorganization.
While the music is delightful, and new discoveries
and connections abound, trying to read about what you are hearing is frustrating.
If you have only the notes that come with the CDs then you have one set
of hassles. There are three Volumes-jewel cases each holding three
CDs and a booklet. Fine so far, except the only track listing for
all CDs is in Booklet 1. The index of performers is only to be found
in Booklet 3. The notes to the songs run across all three booklets,
regardless of how they appear on CD. So Booklet 2 from Volume II
discusses not just songs from that volume, but a few from the previous
and the next volume as well. In some cases, you need all booklets
in hand to find what you want ! How many hands have you got ?
So dispense with shuffling the booklets (except you
still need the track listing) and refer to the book ; it contains more detail
anyway. More hassles : the songs in the book are not quite in the
same order as on the compact discs. For example, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s
"Long Lonesome Blues" is discussed on page 72, but the song that precedes
it is discussed on page 77. These frustrations aside, you may disagree with some of Lowe’s observations
and note a few errors, such as when he says on page 169 that Joe Turner
sang everything in the key of C (the song on CD is closest to F#).
You may regret that there are five more chapters in the book (covering
1947-’56) discussing approximately 90 songs missing from the audio package-that
would take an additional four CDs. You may lament the omission of
composer credits or label information. But you should praise Allen
Lowe for his attention to sound quality, to song selection, and, yes, to
If this story interests you (it has always fascinated
me), this is your desert island selection. Ignore or memorize the
written information and use your ears.
These are both 20-track LP compilations [which have
been reissued as a 2-CD set] of Canadian rock ("punk" or "garage") from
1965 to 1969, featuring 34 groups from Vancouver to Bathurst, New Brunswick.
Actual cities represented are (from west to east) : Vancouver (The Northwest
Company) ; Edmonton (Royal Family, King Beezz) ; Regina (Checkerlads) ; Saskatoon
(Witness Inc.) ; Le Pas, Manitoba (Midnight Angels) ; Winnipeg (Expedition
To Earth, Quid, Satan & the D Men, Mainline, Jury) ; Ottawa (Naughty
Boys, Skaliwags, Don Norman & the Other Four, Heart, Esquires) ; Toronto
(Quiet Jungle, Berries, Please Feed the Animals, Underworld, Just Us, Dee
& the Yeomen) ; Montreal (Purple Haze, Power of Beckett, 409,
Sound Box, M.G. & the Escorts, Bohemians, Mike Jones Group, Munks,
Simple Simon & the Pieman, Our Generation) ; Halifax (Great Scots) ;
and Bathurst, New Brunswick (Eight Point Five).
The majority of these groups produced only one 45 ;
of the others, only two groups produced more than one more single : The
Northwest Company (four more) and Don Norman & the Other 4 (six more).
None made albums except the Esquires in 1964, and Please Feed the Animals,
who made just one album but no single releases. That album contained
only cover songs, seven of them by the Animals (hence the group’s name),
one by the Yardbirds, one by Cream, and one by the Small Faces.
So you can be sure that these are rare, with the book value from
$25 to $85+. Rarity often also means low budget production and that
usually equals low fidelity, and here, with the sources (as usual with
rare stuff) being the 45s and not the master tapes, the sound is compressed,
but so what ? We’re lucky that it’s been made available. But
is the music any good ? Well yes it is, although much of it is derivative
with influences by the Animals, Beatles, and various ’60s-isms like snarling
vocals, tambourines, organ, lots of background singing in harmony,
and fuzz guitar. All but four are originals, as far as I know, except the
covers of Beatles ("She’s A Woman"), Them ("Gloria"), Blues Project
("Wake Me, Shake Me"), Animals ("I’m Crying"). Rating : 8/10
The Arhoolie label of California started in 1960
and now boasts one of the most impressive catalogs of downhome roots music
anywhere. Their most extensive offerings are in blues, Cajun/zydeco,
and tejano and Mexican music. Arhoolie also has a selection of fine
country and bluegrass, gospel, jazz, and world recordings.
Arhoolie’s founder and president is Chris Strachwitz.
His vision and missionary zeal, not to mention his skills in recording,
photography, and liner note writing, deserve high praise for finding, preserving,
and presenting some of the most wonderful music recorded in the Americas.
At the Arhoolie website Strachwitz says :
The idea of making records grew out of my hobby of collecting 78 rpm
recordings of various vernacular traditions, which began shortly after
my arrival in the US from Germany as a teenager in 1947. I first
encountered swing on the Armed Forces Radio while still in Germany.
When I went to school in California I became addicted to New Orleans jazz
after seeing the film called New Orleans.... The film introduced
me to the music of Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Meade Lux Lewis, Billie Holiday,
and others. I soon became fascinated by other sounds which I heard on the
radio : Country or Hillbilly music on XERB, Rhythm & Blues on KFVD with
DJ Hunter Hancock (who featured real blues like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny
Boy Williamson, and Lowell Fulson), Gospel as well as Mexican ranchera
Strachwitz gained some experience by experimenting
with cheap primitive disc cutters and tape recorders, but it was blues
songwriter and record producer Bob Geddins of Oakland, California, who
showed him how to make proper recordings. In 1960, with encouragement
from Paul Oliver, the British blues expert and author, Strachwitz made
the first of his almost annual field recording trips. In Texas he
recorded bluesman Mance Lipscomb. That fall, those recordings became
Arhoolie’s first release. The album and the tape recorder used to
record it were financed by money Strachwitz made from selling off duplicate
78s to collectors in England via mail orders.
When the 250 vinyl copies of Mance Lipscomb’s record
arrived from the pressing plant, Strachwitz and friends sat around a kitchen
table gluing the cover slicks onto the blank record jackets, and inserting
the liner notes by Mack McCormick. McCormick was the one who suggested
Arhoolie as the label’s name : an old Mississippi blues singer used the
word to describe a field holler he had just recorded for the Library of
Congress. Strachwitz says "I have since heard the word ’hoolie’ in
reference to a field holler but I think the ’AR’ in front of it was simply
the man stuttering a bit in Mississippi fashion when a bit nervous !"
From these humble beginnings, boosted by the folk
and blues revivals and British bands like the Rolling Stones who covered
old blues songs, Arhoolie carved a hard-won niche in the marketplace.
However, it was publishing rights and not sales of LPs that provided the
first big money. Strachwitz recorded Country Joe and the Fish, the
psychedelic San Francisco band, for their first record. "I hung an
omni-directional mike from the ceiling, like I had done when I recorded
the Hackberry Ramblers and J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, and Joe cut loose
with ’One, two, three, what are we fighting for,...next stop is Vietnam’
which he called ’I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.’" In exchange
for the recording session, Country Joe McDonald assigned Strachwitz the
publishing rights. The windfall came a few years later, when McDonald
sang the song at Woodstock and it appeared in the movie.
Arhoolie’s catalog grew to include hundreds of vinyl
albums, both contemporary and vintage, such as the seven-volume history
of western swing and the 16 volumes of Texas-Mexico border music.
Chris Strachwitz spends a lot of his time these days re-editing his catalog
for CD releases, painstakingly making transfers from the original tapes,
and reworking the notes to produce a whole new creation. The catalog
now boasts hundreds of these new CD packages and the way to explore them
is through their new American Masters Budget Series. With these CDs,
all containing 15 tracks, you can sample some of the finest roots music
you are likely to find. The care with which these CDs have been made
is evident throughout, from the selections to their sequencing. You
will not be disappointed !
Three CDs in the series are devoted to blues.
Down Home Country Blues Classics includes the original recording of "Mercury
Blues" by K.C. Douglas, covered by Steve Miller, David Lindley, and most
recently by country superstar Alan Jackson. R.L. Burnside, currently
riding high on the blues charts and concert circuit with his brand of Mississippi
juke joint blues, is represented by a 1960s recording. Also included
is one-man-band Jesse Fuller, composer of "San Francisco Bay Blues" covered
by Eric Clapton on Unplugged, and slide guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell,
whose song "You Gotta Move" the Rolling Stones covered on Sticky Fingers.
McDowell toured with Bonnie Raitt and she recorded several of his songs
as well. We hear Big Joe Williams and his 9-string guitar, delta
legend Bukka White, and Lightnin’ Hopkins (whom Strachwitz calls "my idol").
Blues fans will recognize the other names on this CD, including Robert
Pete Williams, Dr. Ross, and Snooks Eaglin.
Down Home Urban Blues Classics opens with one of
Sonny Boy Williamson’s first recordings, made in 1951 in Jackson, Mississippi
for the Trumpet label. John Littlejohn gives us excellent Chicago-blues-with-horns
in "Been Around the World." Big Mama Thornton updates Memphis Minnie’s
"Bumble Bee," and Juke Boy Bonner, worried about sniper fire, sings about
moving out of Houston in "Going Back to the Country" ("where they don’t
the buildings down"). It’s not all guitars : we get Charlie Musselwhite’s
harp (harmonica) and that of James Cotton accompanying Johnny Young, and
L.C. "Good Rockin’" Robinson’s violin. We hear pianists Katie Webster,
Piano Red, and Omar Sharriff, who does the haunting minor-key "The Raven."
Pete Johnson plays piano while Big Joe Turner sings "Wine-O-Baby Boogie"
from the late 1940s. These pianists show up again on Piano Blues
and Boogie Classics along with Chicago legends Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake,
Pinetop Perkins, and several lesser-known worthies. Bukka White shows
off his piano skills on "Sugar Hill."
Two CDs feature the music of Louisiana. Louisiana
Cajun Classics presents the white traditions, featuring fiddler Michael
Doucet, both solo and with his band Beausoleil (one of Arhoolie’s steady
best sellers). The still-performing Hackberry Ramblers (who first
recorded in the 1930s) give us the classic "Jolie Blonde." Other
well-known Cajun artists heard here are Nathan Abshire, Dewey Balfa, and
Harry Choates. Louisiana Zydeco Classics showcases the black traditions
and features the late Clifton Chenier, the King of Zydeco, whom Strachwitz
calls "a remarkable singer and genius musician." Chenier’s records
continue to sell well. Clifton Chenier’s son C.J. Chenier carries
on the tradition, as do the other featured musicians.
Three CDs cover Mexican music. Tex-Mex
Conjunto Classics contains mariachi horns, Spanish melodies sung in harmony
to 12-string guitars, and the extraordinary accordion of the charismatic
Flaco Jimenez from San Antonio, Texas. We get the title track from
his Grammy-winning album Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio. Jimenez toured
often with Ry Cooder, and also with Peter Rowan. Also featured is
Lydia Mendoza, an influential singer and the subject of a recent biography.
Strachwitz is one of the authors. Mendoza appears again on Regional
Music Classics of Mexico, as Strachwitz continues his documentation of
Mexican-American traditions that, as he says "have received almost no attention
from the general American audience.” The third volume, Tex-Mex Tejano
Classics, has yet to be released (also the case for Down Home Country Classic).
Rounding out Arhoolie’s American Masters Budget Series
is a wonderful volume of World Music Classics. We hear music from
Greece, Ethiopia, Poland, Peru, Hawaii, Africa, and elsewhere, all recorded
in the Americas. Among the gems is "Poor But Ambitious," a calypso
lament from Trinidad, sung by Wilmouth Houdini :
Chris Strachwitz continues to produce historical
re-issues of various regional and ethnic traditions with the help of collectors
around the world, and he still records, produces, and licenses new material.
For more information, phone (510) 525-7471 or visit
the website : click here. For a complete catalog, send $2 to
Arhoolie Productions, Inc. at 10341 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito, California
94530. They also distribute the complete catalogs of Document (over
600 CDs that provide "The Complete Recorded Works Of Every Pre-War Blues
And Gospel Artist In Chronological Order") and Pan (ethnic music from around
Klezmer, from the Hebrew word for musical instrument,
is a cosmopolitan style of traditional eastern European wedding and celebration
music. Full of colour and contrast, it can be melancholy or ecstatic,
languorous or frenzied. Played originally by wandering Jewish musicians,
it was brought to America by immigrants early in the century.
A klezmer revival has been going on for some years.
The leading Montreal exponent is the Bagg Street Klezmer Band, who take
their name from the oldest functioning synagogue in Quebec, on Bagg Street
at Clark. Their first CD is Go Meshuggah ! (which means Go Crazy !)
and that’s the effect klezmer musicians are supposed have on the party
guests. The band has a solid reputation for doing exactly that at
events around town, and the well-crafted arrangements and lively performances
on the CD will give you an excellent idea of why.
Alongside the sprightly minor key dances are folk
songs and processionals, all learnt by band members from older musicians
or from 78 RPM recordings. Because klezmer has absorbed influences
from gypsies and gentiles who have lived alongside the Jewish people, there
are traces of Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Polish, Greek, Turkish,
and Arabic music. Klezmer’s multi-ethnic origins make it appealing
to a wide-range of fans, and as instrumental music it transcends linguistic
barriers. Add in its sorrow and joy, exotic charm, and tremendous
energy, and it is easy to see why it is gaining popularity, striking a
resonant chord with francophones and anglophones alike.
Three of the seven Bagg Street members are McGill
alumni : leader and clarinetist Rick Goldman, pianist Stephen Errington,
and drummer and percussionist Harle Thomas. Joining them are violinist
Minda Bernstein, accordionist David Mandel, trumpet player Philip Weech,
and guitarist Lorin Levine who also plays saxophones three : baritone, tenor,
A lot of heart, soul, and care went into this excellent set of
music, which I can recommend as appropriate for any gathering of humans
where emotions are felt—and you want to dance.