Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Arkansas on Delmark


(Originally posted: Aug. 30, 2004)

Delmark, the independent record label based in Chicago, continues to champion Arkansas blues musicians.

The label recently reissued Roosevelt Sykes' "Chicago Boogie" with St. Louis Jimmy Oden, J.T. Brown, Ransom Knowling, Jump Jackson and Homesick James.

Sykes is part of the holy trinity of Arkansas bluesmen: In addition to Sykes, the two others are Robert (McCollum) Nighthawk, another Helena native, and Junior Welles of West Memphis, and they're both on Delmark as well.

Welles' "Blues Hit Big Town" and "Hoodo Man Blues" and "On Tap," along with Nighthawk's "Bricks in My Pillow," are important Chicago blues records by Arkansas-born artists, and they're all available from Delmark. (I still have my 35-year-old LP of Welles' "Hoodo Man Blues," which sounds better than ever on a new turntable.)

Sykes' "Chicago Boogie" is an essential record that was made more than 50 years ago.

Half the CD has never been issued before. Sykes, who was born in Helena in 1906, was an influential blues pianist with a booming voice and a great stage presence. He was smooth, too, and could rock with the best of them.

The added bonus here includes St. Louis Jimmy singing on several numbers, although it takes a while to figure that out since there's not much information provided with the CD.

But what's important is that Sykes is the star of the show and gets occasional backing from Brown on saxophone, Knowling on bass, Jackson on drums and James on guitar.

Sykes pounds the ivories as if he were playing in a dark corner in a juke joint back in Helena as he belts out a bunch of original tunes. Just listen to "Rock It" on "Chicago Boogie," which could have been called "Arkansas Boog-ie," except it was recorded in Chicago.

There's "West Helena Blues," a town that has had more songs written about it than any place I can think of, and there's also "Green Onion Top," which is as country as the Arkansas Delta and as delicious as Southern cooking.

There's much more, of course: Plenty of new stuff and alternate takes, along with Oden's down-home vocalizing. It's a blues party that won't end if you hit the replay button.

You can also listen to other vintage blues, including Delmark's reissue of Byther Smith's "Hold That Train."

This is a small gem by a Mississippi-born guitarist and singer who made this record more than 20 years ago as "Tell Me How You Like It," with new material added. +++ Smith is a genuine talent – a first-rate guitar player and singer whose roots are in Mississippi, even though he's lived in Chicago since the 1950s.

The CD sounds as good as a late-night blues session on the Mississippi levee, and you don't have to leave home to listen to it.

If Sykes represents the old blues and Smith is somewhere in the middle, Delmark's newest talent is Charles Wilson, whose "If Heartaches Were Nickels" is a soulful gem backed up by guitarist Carl Weathersby with a special appearance by Little Milton, Wil-son's uncle. A joy.

Wilson, who reminds you of Junior Parker, was born in Chicago but has moved to the Delta close to where his family is from originally.

He's a wonderful young soul singer with a great future if Delmark sticks with him.

Here's hoping he'll make an appearance in this area soon –either side of the Mississippi River would be fine.

By the way, try to make it down to Clarksdale, Miss., for today's Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival


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