Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Down in Bentonia


For Sam Myers, 1935-2006 Down in Bentonia, Miss., deep in the Delta, a couple of fast-fingered bluesmen strummed their guitars and sang in a haunting falsetto, creating the Bentonia blues sound.

Skip James, who died nearly 40 years ago, is the most famous of the two blues musicians from Bentonia, but Jack Owens, who passed away a decade ago, is not far behind.

There’s now a third blues musician from Bentonia, and he’s lived and played for many years in near-obscurity in his hometown — until now. Jimmy (Duck) Holmes, 58, has just released his first CD called Back to Bentonia (Broke and Hungry Records), and he’s almost a reincarnation of Skip James and Jack Owens.

We’ve been listening to “Back to Bentonia” all month in amazement and wonder. “Back to Bentonia” is a revelation — a trip back to a time I didn’t think existed anymore. That’s what reviewers are saying about the CD: It’s pre-war blues with an eccentric twist: This isn’t anything like Delta blues. It’s more like early blues before it took on a driving beat that evolved into electric Chicago blues. With the Bentonia sound, the outside world was kept at a distance: They played their own kind of music down there with no outside influences to dilute its authenticity.

Holmes performs mostly his own compositions, except for “Vicksburg Blues” by Little Brother Montgomery and two tunes identified with Skip James: “I’d Rather Be the Devil (Than That Woman’s Man)” and “Hard Times,” which on the CD are credited to Jack Owens.

Sam Carr plays drums on several numbers, adding a special dimension with his deep Delta beat. He’s known as the Delta’s greatest drummer for good reason. Bud Spires, Jack Owens’ former harmonica-playing partner, performs on three songs.
The CD is better than we had a right to expect: This is a great CD, perhaps the most important country-blues record of the year.

Blues fans should rejoice that producer and record label owner Jeff Konkel of St. Louis put Holmes’ unique music on CD. Holmes is an important Delta bluesman whose voice we would not have heard but for Kunkel’s efforts. (Full disclosure: Our friend Bill Abel is co-producer.)

Several cuts on the CD were re-corded at Holmes’ juke joint, the Blue Front Café, where Holmes still performs regularly. USA Today recently ran a long Associated Press travel piece on Holmes’ café and home town. Who knows: Bentonia might be-come a tourist destination like Helena or Clarksdale, Miss.

Derek Trucks continues his string of successful blues-based rock CDs with Songlines (Columbia). A former child prodigy, Trucks is one of the most gifted guitarists around. He’s so good, you wish he’d play nonstop throughout the CD, which gets better with every listening: Astonishing music from an artist of the highest order.

A small group backing up the boss would have sufficed, but he lets his band stretch out, too, including vocalist Mike Mattison. It’s a talented group, but Trucks (the son of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks) is the star here: He’s an astonishing musician, as talented a guitarist as any seasoned musician twice his age. Still in his 20s, Derek Trucks plays as if he’d been born with a guitar around his shoulders. It’s as if this young man has experienced it all while growing up with the Allman Brothers Band, listening to jazz and blues and rock and everything in between: A genuine rocker who accepts no limitations.

Jazz and blues and R&B and rock all come to him naturally — he opens with Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery,” explodes with “I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy,” moans on “I Wish I Knew How to Be Free” and plays several of his own compositions: Nearly an hour of amazing music that might take you back to the heyday of Fillmore East and West, only better.

Bruce Springsteen, the original Boss, himself no slouch as a guitarist, has released a folk CD-DVD you might want to check out: We Shall Over-come: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia), a dual audio-DVD, is a tribute to folk singer Pete Seeger. It’s unlike anything he’s done, at least in a while. It’s loud, all right, but it’s acoustic music that you might hear at a hootenanny in the Adirondacks.

Strumming on banjo, playing on the guitar and mandolin, as well as organ, harmonica, percussion and tambou-rine, and singing as if he’s back in the civil-rights era, with 10 other musicians behind him. Springsteen belts out toe-tapping music that your grandparents may have danced to, including songs like “Old Dan Tucker,” “Jesse James,” “O Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “John Henry,” “Shenandoah,” plus the title song and more.

Grab yourself a partner and dance to the music. Then watch the DVD as Springsteen and the band perform live, as they do on the audio side, with the Boss shouting out instructions and having a heckuva good time

More Downhome Blues

Eb Davis, one of Arkansas’ great soul-blues singers, has a new CD out, Eb Davis and the Super-band: Live at the A-Trane, Berlin (Soul Defender), recorded last year before an enthusiastic crowd in the German capital, where he has lived for many years.

The band is made up of both American and German musicians, including Davis’ wife, Nina, on piano, organ and vocal. Many of the songs are Davis originals, but he also performs songs by fellow Arkansan Junior Wells, as well as Willie Dixon, Larry Garner and others.

Davis enjoys life in Germany and spreading the blues around Europe.

“What I’m hoping to accomplish is to get more people in the land that I love to come to know more about a native son who has taken what he learned in the Delta and spread it around the world,” Davis told us after he finished the CD.

What follows are my liner notes to “Eb Davis and the Superband: Live at the A-Trane, Berlin:”

Eb Davis was the most impressive singer at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival in Helena (formerly the King Biscuit Blues Festival) in October 2005. Davis, a native of Elaine, Ark., which is near Helena, now lives in Berlin, but he comes home as often as he can, although his fans back home don’t think he comes back often enough.

There were plenty of fine singers and terrific guitar players at the Helena festival (Robert Junior Lockwood, another Arkansas native, also played at the festival, as he does every year), but Davis’ fine voice made him the favorite with many of the festivalgoers. He has a great stage presence and sense of style and once filled in for the Drifters while they traveled in Europe, which is why he’s now settled in Germany.

He’ll remind you of Junior Parker (another former Arkansas resident), but you can hear traces in his voice of other great Arkansas performers he heard while growing up in the Delta in the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, besides the Mississippi Delta, there is also an Arkansas Delta, which has produced almost as many musical giants as the region across the river: Albert King, Luther Allison, Al Green, Jimmy McCracklin, Son Seals, Roosevelt Sykes, Junior Wells and many others.

Davis, who was born in 1945, is old enough to have soaked in their musical influences, as well as the sounds of Memphis, where he grew up.

He’s a great soul-blues singer who reminds you of other Arkansas-born singers, such as Jimmy Witherspoon, but mostly Eb is his own man, skillfully blending in the Gospel influences from his childhood and creating a sound that is a constant joy to listen to. He’s hip. He’s soulful. His music will move you. It will send you back to Arkansas.

Check out his CDs, including “Wanna Talk About You” (Furniture Records) with Eugene (Hide-away) Bridges and “Fool for the Ladies” with Big Jay McNelly (Wonderland Records). Wonderful music. Davis stands out as one of the best and must not be missed if he performs in your area.

The good news is that he has a new CD out, recorded in 2005.

Turn up the volume and enjoy the greatest music in the world, created and nurtured in the Delta, the most musical region on earth.

If you can’t make it to the Delta, listen to EB Davis on his fine CD or catch him in Europe, but if you’re really lucky, someday you might catch him and his band on his native soil back in the Delta. See you there.

For a mini-Chicago blues festival, check out Michael Coleman and the Delmark All-Stars: Blues Brunch at the Mart (Delmark), recorded live last June at the Jazz Record Mart in downtown Chicago on the same weekend that the city holds its annual blues festival.

Every year, Bob Koester, the producer and record-shop owner, brings in his stable of stars for a free show — and what a lineup. Besides Coleman, who does a soulful version of “The Sky Is Crying,” performers include several other Chicago greats: Lurrie Bell, Bonnie Lee, Steve Freund, Zora Young, Steve Behr, Shirley Johnson, Aaron Moore, the late Willie Kent and Arkansas’ own Tail Dragger.

The music is great and it’s like having a blues festival in your home — and it’s cheaper than the price of gasoline. Enjoy.

Give the Gift of Music

B.B. King’s book of treasures, Wynton Marsalis, Dr. John, Patti Smith, others.

One of our favorite books this holiday season is “The B.B. King Treasures: Photos, Mementos and Music from B.B. King’s Collection” (Bullfinch Press, $40).

It’s an oversized book with plenty of illustrations from B.B.’s illustrious past, easy to read and fun to look through, with every page offering fascinating glimpses of a gifted musician who made it to the top with his talent and winning personality.

“The B.B. King Treasures” has just received an award from Blues Foundation of Memphis, which administers the Handy Awards. Compiled by the king of the blues with the help of photographer Dick Waterman, the book contains 116 full-color and black-and-white photographs, along with several posters and other mementos from King’s collection, as well as a CD on which the 80-year-old artist recalls his long career. The CD also has two previously unreleased songs.

The CD features two Arkansas-related vignettes. B.B. talks about that fire in a juke joint in Twist, Ark., where two men had started a fight over a woman and knocked over a kerosene heater, sending everyone outside, but B.B. ran back inside and saved his guitar from the inferno.

The name of the woman the men had fought over, he later found out, was named Lucille, so he named his guitar after her.

King also talks about Louis Jordan, a Brinkley native who influenced B.B.’s music about as much as anyone else. B.B. plays one or two of Jordan’s hits — “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “Caldonia” — at almost every show.

At $40, this book is a bargain and would make a great gift for anyone who has any interest in the blues at all. It’s beautifully produced on quality paper with posters and cards tucked into wax paper, all of them suitable for framing.

How can the publisher do it so cheaply? “The B.B. King Treasures” was printed in China.

The book traces King’s life from near Itta Bena, Miss., to a proclamation at the state Capitol in Jackson marking B.B. King Day in Mississippi and ends with photos of President Clinton and Pope John Paul II. The Delta sharecropper has come a long way indeed.

Give music as holiday presents and you can also help hurricane victims. Wynton Marsalis and Elton John are featured on two new Blue Note CDs whose proceeds will support relief efforts in Louisiana.

Shirles Caeser starts off “Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert,” which was recorded Sept. 17 at New York’s Lincoln Center, with “This Joy,” a rousing gospel number. In addition to Marsalis, the all-star CD features such top-notch artists as Terence Blanchard, Aaron and Art Neville, Diane Krall, James Taylor, Dianne Reeves, Marcus Roberts Trio, Norah Jones, Buckwheat Zydeco, Bette Midler, Irvin Mayfield, Jordan Family, Joe Lovano, Cassandra Wilson, Mark O’Connor and the Lincoln Jazz Orchestra, which Marsalis has directed for many years.

Not all the artists on the program are from New Orleans — in fact, few of them are from the Big Easy — but they evoke the spirit of New Orleans with their music that traces its roots to the crescent city. It’s a great gumbo of sound, from jazz to blues to pop to gospel, with all the participants pouring their hearts out for the victims, many of whom are still scattered as far north as Arkansas and beyond.

Marsalis, a native of New Orleans who helped revive jazz more than 25 years ago as a very young trumpet player, deserves credit for making this extraordinary concert happen and for keeping the music of New Orleans alive.

Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, and the Lower 911 band, also do their thing for their home town with music that is all water-themed: Numbers include “Clean Water,” “Wade: Hurricane Suite,” singing achingly for a community that has disappeared but one that is determined to come back.

Columbia Legacy celebrates the 30th anniversary of Patti Smith’s seminal “Horses” LP with a gorgeously remastered double CD featuring Robert Map-plethorpe’s black-and-white photographs that helped solidify Smith’s image as an original artist — as original as the photographer but who is still creating: Smith sounds better than ever on the second CD, which was recorded earlier this year in London. Her music isn’t so much punk rock as art rock: An original voice who continues to entertain and amaze.

Jazz and Blues Records of the Year


Here’s a rundown of our favorite jazz and blues CDs from last year, many of them live recordings from decades ago that sound terrific. Some of them represent the musicians’ best work:

John Coltrane’s One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse) is the first authorized release of privately circulated tapes that were recorded from radio broadcasts originating from a small club in March and May 1965 not far from where the World Trade Center was later built. This double CD, with some 90 minutes of astonishing music, has the classic Coltrane quartet at its peak: Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass.

What amazing music: It must have felt like an earthquake in lower Manhattan while Coltrane improvised for almost half an hour on the title tune, and shorter versions “My Favorite Things,” “Song of Praise” and “Afro Blue.”

The quartet disbanded in 1965, and Coltrane, only 40 years old, died two years after this recording was made. With “One Down, One Up” it’s like having Coltrane back. Let’s hope there’s more material on those old tapes that would fill another double CD.

You want more Coltrane? Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane (Blue Note) was another one of our favorites from last year. Recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1957 for the Voice of America, the material on this CD was discovered only last year. And what a discovery: Monk, Coltrane, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson shine on several Monk compositions. Surely the Voice of America can find more music from that night, when the lineup included Dizzie Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins and Billie Holiday (she would not allow VOA to record her), but what about the others?

You want more Sonny Rollins? We’re glad to report that Rollins’ Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone) shows off the great tenor player in terrific form. This is the master’s first CD in five years and was recorded in Boston just four days after the terrorist attacks. Rollins had thought about cancelling the concert, but decided to go ahead with it, and we’re fortunate that he did.

As he says during the concert, “We need to keep music alive in some kind of way.”

Rollins does it with class with the help of Stephen Scott on piano, Clifton Ander-son on trombone, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Perry Wilson on drums and Kimati Dinizulu on percussion, mostly on standards, such as “With-out a Song,” “A Night-ingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “Why Was I Born?” “Where or When” and Rollins’ “Global Warning.”

This CD reminds you of another live Rollins record, A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note) from 1957. One of the all-time greats. What is it about jazz that sounds terrific in front of an audience?

Here are some more live recordings: Wynton Marsalis’ Live at the Tribes (Blue Note) recorded three years ago but released in 2005.

The great trumpet player (who a decade ago let my young son watch him rehearse with his band at Robinson Auditorium) donated his services to a tiny community group on New York’s Lower East Side (not far from where Monk and Coltrane once played).

Marsalis is joined by Wessell Anderson on alto saxophone, Eric Lewis on piano and others from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The music is extraordinary and reminds you that top-notch jazz didn’t stop when Coltrane and Monk passed away: Marsalis is as talented and gifted as many of the giants of jazz.

Speaking of giants (and going back in time again): Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown Records). It’s another oldie, but, again, the material has been remastered and only recently released. Parker was late as usual, but Don Byas stood in for him for a while, and it’s the founders of bebop for the rest of the program: This is historic music that should not be missed. “A Night in Tunisia,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Groovin’ High” and other bebop anthems that kicked off a new era in jazz.

Hank Jones is a musician who was there from the beginning of bebop and is still recording. For My Father (Just in Time Records) is another elegant CD from the great pianist. Jones, who is in his late 80s, has been performing for almost 60 years and is not slowing down.

His brothers Elvin (mentioned above) and Thad Jones, who played trumpet and was a great composer, arranger and band leader, have passed away, but Hank and Elvin produced a trio of records in recent years which are among our favorites. They are “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Collaboration” with Richard Davis on bass, and I could listen to them all evening and sometimes do.

Jones is also heard on Joe Lovano’s Joyous Encounter (Blue Note), another of our favorites from 2005, and the earlier I’m All for You: Ballad Songbook (also from Blue Note). Lovano’s sound on the tenor saxophone gets deeper as he gets older, and he, too, is keeping the spirit of jazz alive. A wonderful musician and a swell guy, too.

Another favorite from last year: Charlie Haden’s Libera-tion Music Orchestra’s Not in Our Name (Verve) arranged and conducted by Carla Bley. The music is as impassioned as Rollins playing after 9/11, both artists reacting to traumatic issues of our time: Terrorism and the war in Iraq. Haden, who is against the war, expresses his feelings with deep emotion. This is music that will move you and might bring tears to your eyes. How many jazz records can do that?

Finally our favorite blues CD of the year: Otis Rush’s All Your Loving I Miss Loving: Live at the Wise Fools Pub in Chicago (Delmark). This is another radio broadcast (from January 1976) that has been remastered, and the sound is pretty good. Rush plays deep blues as only he could before a stroke slowed him down a couple of years ago. Besides the title song, Rush does “Woke up This Morning,” “High Society,” “Feels So Bad,” “Sweet Little Angel” and much more. He was in amazing form that night and Delmark has re-leased a classic.

My son says this is Otis Rush’s best CD, and he’s probably right.

Apologies for not mentioning other great music we heard last year and regrets also for missing out on artists we should have listened to but didn’t get around to.

Maybe we’ll catch them the next go-round.

Enjoy the music.

Chicago Labels Still Keep Blues Alive


(Originally posted 11/14/04)

Guitar Shorty will promote new CD at Sticky Fingers

Guitar Shorty will appear at Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock's Rivermarket District on Thursday. Shorty has a terrific new CD out, "Watch Your Back" (Alligator), and he'll probably play several numbers from his CD during his Little Rock appearance.

If you're nice, he might even play the entire CD for you, and you won't even have to watch your back when he lays down some soaring guitar solos and sings some genuine blues like "Story of My Life," "I'm Gonna Leave You," "What She Don't Know," "Right for the Job," "Let My Guitar Do the Talking" and more.

But you get the idea.

Guitar Shorty (real name David William Kearney) was born in Houston in 1939 and started re-cording for Cobra in Chicago in the late 1950s, along with Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. Blues doesn't get much better than that.

Shorty has come full circle as he's now recording for Chicago's Alligator Records, whose owner, Bruce Iglauer, has put out some of the finest blues around for the past 30 years. Iglauer's Arkansas connections include producing two great Fenton Robinson records, "Somebody Loan Me a Dime" and "Night-flight," perhaps the best work the former Little Rock resident, now deceased, ever made in a studio.

Guitar Shorty is another great Alligator talent. "Watch Your Back" is loud and tough and real. Shorty is a great blues man, and you shouldn't miss him when he comes to Little Rock. Listen to the real deal, and then buy an autographed copy of "Watch Your Back" from the great guitarist himself. You'll play it a lot.

Delmark is another important Chicago label that keeps putting out astonishing blues year after year.

For 50 years, Bob Koester has recorded several major blues artists in the windy city, including Arkansas' own Junior Wells, whose "Hoodoo Man Blues," "Blues Hit Big Town," "Southside Blues Jam" and "On Tap" are classic Delmark CDs.

Wells is no longer with us, but Delmark has recorded yet another Arkansas native, blues piano wizard Detroit Junior, who, at 73, is still going strong .

His first CD is called "Blues on the Internet," where Jimmy Dawkins, Lurrie Bell and Maurice John Vaughn back him on guitar, Bob Stroger on bass, Sonny Cohn on trumpet, Eric Schneider on saxophone and Kenny Smith on drums.

Much of this CD sounds like music that was played in the Arkan-sas Delta for decades.

A native of Haynes, Ark. (as he proudly told us when we walked into Kingston Mines blues club in Chicago a few years ago), Junior is a rocking bluesman who has played with the best of them. (He was on Howlin' Wolf's last Chess record.)

Junior (real name: Emery Williams, Jr.) is in the tradition of another great Arkansas blues pianist, Roosevelt Sykes, who knew how to throw a party, as does Junior. Now if somebody would invite him down to Sticky Fingerz, along with Jimmy Dawkins and the rest of the band, we'd have a real party.

The party doesn't end yet: Delmark has released an amazing recording called "Stompin' at Mother Blues" by J.B. Hutto, the late slide-guitarist whose lyrics no one understands but whose raucous musicianship never ceases to astound.

The first half of "Stompin'" was recorded in a Chicago blues club on a Sunday afternoon in 1966, when the club was closed, while the rest was recorded in 1972 in a studio.

It's an important musical document, adding luster to Delmark's impressive 50-year backlist, which also includes the late Luther Allison and Robert Nighthawk (both Arkansas natives), as well as Otis Rush, Memphis Slim, Big Walter Horton and many, many others.

What's also impressive is that Delmark can record a couple of white bluesmen and make them sound more than credible.

That's the case with the Dave Specter-Steve Freund CD called "Is What It Is," a far from memorable title, but the two guitarists do very well with help from Barrelhouse Chuck on piano and Rob Waters on organ, among others.

Specter and Freund aren't white rockers. They're for real and look like they've lived the blues all their lives.

Sticky Fingerz should invite them all down here, along with Little Arthur Duncan, another great Delmark artist from Chicago.

How about a Chicago blues series at Sticky Fingerz?

Big Jack Johnson: Great Bluesman


Big Jack Johnson has been playing at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Miss., for the last couple of weekends, and if you hurry down there, you might still catch the great bluesman tonight as he rocks the juke joint down with his powerful guitar playing and soulful singing that’s as deep and satisfying as anything you’ll hear today anywhere in the Delta.

Johnson, who is 65 and a native of Clarksdale, is a gifted guitar player and a fine singer who might remind you of other blues greats from the area — Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or even Earl Hooker, who’d moved away about the time Johnson was growing up there, but he must have absorbed their music from their records and has honored their legacy with superb blues that mixes tradition with a contemporary sound.

Listening to him one recent evening after seeing him many times over the years — the first time at Memphis in May and then at Riverfest in Little Rock — I finally realized that Jack Johnson is surely the region’s greatest living bluesman and is as good as any of those blues giants from the past.

You can hear him for free at many blues festivals — including at an unannounced appearance last October at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival at Helena with Lonnie Shields, an area native who came in from Philadelphia after several years’ absence, and you can also hear Johnson at the Sunflower Blues Festival in August .

But for $8 or so, you can often catch him at Red’s Lounge, a small juke joint where Big Jack and his band play facing the bar, and what a bargain: He plays three 45-minute sets from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. not far from where Muddy Waters made his Library of Congress recordings at the nearby train depot in 1942. Honeyboy Edwards, now 90 and living in Chicago, also made his LOC recordings and played on Fourth Street near Red’s around the same time and still plays now and then in Clarksdale.

Johnson, a former oil company truck driver, is as powerfully built as Muddy Waters with a voice to match, although Big Jack is probably the better guitar player.

His blues rocks and swings and moves you like a thunderstorm blasting through the night.

Big Jack’s playlist includes “If You Love Me Like You Do,” “Oh Darling,” “Since I Met You Baby,” “Have Mercy Baby,” “Rock Me Baby,” “That’s All Right Mama,” “Kansas City,” “Catfish Blues,” “Driving Wheel,” “Clarksdale Boogie” and much more.

If these songs don’t get you on your feet, better find a doctor to check your pulse.

This is American roots music at its best, born in the Delta and spread across the globe, copied by Eric Clapton, the Beatles and every rock group and lounge band from Bakersfield, Calif., to Moscow, Idaho, to Moscow, Russia.

Only nobody plays it better than Big Jack.

The first time we heard of Jack Johnson was when we walked into the Blues Museum in the old Carnegie Library in Clarksdale back in 1998, and the manager said “Off Yonder Wall” by the Jelly Roll Kings (Fat Possum Records) was the best CD he had for sale.

The manager, who obviously knew his music, had tipped us off to one of the great blues groups of the last 40 years. The Jelly Roll Kings consisted of Frank Frost on harmonica and keyboards, Sam Carr on drums and Big Jack Johnson on guitar.

Frost, a native Arkansan who was still living in Helena then, has since passed away. Carr, another Arkansan, lives across the river not far from the casino near Lula, Miss. Carr is 80 and is considered the best drummer in the Delta. Johnson joined the Jelly Roll Kings when he was just a kid, and the two still play together occasionally, but these days Big Jack has his own group or picks up a band when he travels around the world, which he does often.

(Carr, by the way, is the son of Robert Nighthawk, a brilliant slide guitarist who died in Helena in the late ’60s. Nighthawk, whose real name was Robert McCollum, and Frank Frost are buried in the same cemetery in Helena.)

“Off Yonder Wall” is one of the greatest blues CDs of all-time and was produced by the late Robert Palmer, a Little Rock native who wrote about music for Rolling Stone, Down Beat and the New York Times. He is also the author of “Deep Blues,” a fine history of Delta blues and its migration to the North.

We’ve been buying Jelly Roll Kings’ music ever since our first trip to Clarksdale, although we can’t afford everything they’d put out: A used LP version of “Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down” (Earwig Records) sells for $6,500 (that’s right) from a mail-order record dealer in Oregon.

When I asked Johnson if he might sell me an LP of “Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down” for $100, he said, “I wouldn’t sell it for $100,000.”

There are very few LP copies left, although Earwig’s CD version is available from the company’s Web site. Earwig also plans to reissue the vinyl version as a two-LP set next year. It will cost a lot less than $6,500. Look for it and catch Big Jack live.

The Great Helena Blues Festival

The King Biscuit Blues Festival is no more: A New York outfit claims it bought the name decades ago for a syndicated radio show, apparently under the impression King Biscuit is some kind of flower.

But they couldn't kill Arkansas' musical gift to the world. The festival came back with a roar October 6-8 - renamed the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival - despite the wind and cold. (If they can rename the 19-year-old festival, can't they move it up just one week, when the weather's usually still warm? Last year's festival, alas, was a washout).

But when the weather is half-decent, the Helena festival can claim title as the most important blues festival in the world.

This is a festival that showcases native sons like 88-year-old guitar genius Robert Junior Lockwood (who learned from Delta blues legend Robert Johnson); 80-year-old drum wizard Sam Carr (whose father Robert Nighthawk was one of the all-time great slide-guitar players); 60-year-old deep soul-blues singer Eb Davis (who, in our estimation, had the best voice at the festival), and the 40-something Lonnie Shields, who helped kick off the festival Thursday before last, alongside Big Jack Johnson, another blues great from Clarksdale, Miss., who, as far as we could tell, was never introduced to the audience.

Most of these musicians had played at the first King Biscuit Festival in 1986 and have returned often. Lockwood hasn't missed a year, although this was Shields' first appearance in five years.

Shields is a native of Helena and so is Carr, while Lockwood was born up the road in Turkey Scratch, and they have an unmistakable Arkansas sound that seldom gets recognition in most blues circles.

They're gifted musicians whose records are a must for all blues fans. Lockwood's "Steady Rollin' Man" (Delmark) is a classic and builds the case for Lockwood as America's greatest guitar player.

For many years, Carr and Jackson teamed up with the late Frank Frost (another Arkansas native), who performed as the Jelly Roll Kings on such great records as "Rockin' the Juke Joint Down" (Earwig) and "Off Yonder Wall" (Fat Possum). Shields, who often played with the Jelly Roll Kings and now lives in Philadelphia, is in fine form on two Rooster CDs, "Midnight Delight" and "Portrait."

Last weekend's big surprise was hearing Eb Davis, a native of Elaine, which is near Helena, who now lives in Berlin. He's a great soul-blues singer who reminds you of Jimmy McCracklin of Pine Bluff and Jimmy Witherspoon of Gurdon (Clark County). Davis has a great stage presence and once filled in for the Drifters while they traveled in Europe, which is why he's now settled in Germany. He comes home every once in a while, and till he does, listen to his CDs.

We've enjoyed his "Wanna Talk About You" (Furniture Records) with Eugene (Hideaway) Bridges and "Fool for the Ladies" with Big Jay McNelly (Wonder-land Records). Wonderful music. Davis is one of the best and must not be missed if he returns here again.

But the three-day blues bash featured several legends besides the above mentioned Arkansans: David Honeyboy Edwards, who is 90, started playing in Arkansas back in the 1930s and was with Robert Johnson when he was poisoned in 1938 near Greenwood, Miss., not far from where Edwards was born in 1915. Last Saturday night, Edwards sang a soulful ÒWest Helena BluesÓ after he received a lifetime achievement award from the blues festival.

You can hear him play "West Helena Blues" on his "White Windows" Evidence CD and elsewhere. Also check out his Library of Congress recordings from 1942, as well as his Smithsonian recordings, "Delta Bluesman." We also enjoyed hearing the great Bobby Blue Bland and Henry Gray, who was HowlinÕ WolfÕs pianist and who still plays great swamp blues.

The Delta harp player Big George Brock, who now lives in St. Louis, made several appearances in the area during the weekend, winning new fans wherever he went. Check out his "Club Caravan" CD from Cat Head.

He's a class act.

It is with sadness that we note that the great Sam Myers, once a powerful blues shouter, is battling throat cancer and can no longer sing, although he said a few words to his fans in a scratchy voice and briefly played his harmonica with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, his old band mates.

B.B. King: World's Greatest Entertainer

Originally posted June 4, 2005

Riverfest rivals Memphis in May, while Handy’s honors artists

When it came to musical variety, last weekend’s Riverfest rivaled the much bigger Memphis in May a month ago. The crowds are much better behaved here — the overpriced Memphis in May attracts mostly adolescents drawn to adolescent music — and when you have B.B. King as your headliner, Riverfest was bound to succeed, even with some rain.

King, voted blues entertainer of the year at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards ceremony in Memphis, performed his hits for an hour and paid tribute to his favorite president. Instead of “Every Day I have the Blues,” usually his first song, he opened with “Why I Sing the Blues,” continued with “Bad Case of Love,” “Early in the Morning,” “Rock Me, Baby,” “Key to the Highway,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” and even included the politically incorrect “Ain’t It Just Like a Woman” (popularized by Brinkley’s Louis Jordan, one of B.B.’s favorites) and we even heard U-2’s “When Love Comes to Town.”

Backed by a rousing band, the king of the blues was in fine form, although he’s showing his age: King, who is a diabetic, will be 80 in September and performs sitting down. Even so, he’s still the world’s greatest entertainer.

As for Memphis in May, it was muddy and claustrophobic, as usual, but it was nice to see Ike Turner, who is in his 70s, is still putting on a good show, although he’ll never find another Tina, although many have auditioned for the job.

The Handy awards ceremony in downtown Memphis, a few days after Memphis in May, saw many of our favorites makes an appearance, although not all of them performed, often because the show ran too long and the artists left.

Kenny Neal and Billy Branch, who won best acoustic album for their Alligator CD “Double Take,” came onstage around 1 a.m. and were soon told to stop, which upset Branch, who went into a tirade. Who can blame him?

The great Sam Lay, drummer for Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, waited backstage, but he never got the call to perform. Lay, who is from Alabama, stormed off with his wife and drove to Augusta (Woodruff County) to visit his in-laws.

A Handy nominee, Lay has a new CD out called “I Get Evil” (Random Chance Records), and he sings and play drums, too.

Several winners and nominees did perform, including Mavis Staples, who won for best blues and soul album (“Have a Little Faith”) was named best soul blues artist; Charlie Musselwhite, who won for best contemporary blues album (“Sanctuary”) and was named best contemporary blues artist and blues harmonica player; Pinetop Perkins, who won for best traditional blues album (“Ladies Man”) and was named best traditional blues artist.

Perkins, who is 92, played a little piano, while Honeyboy Edwards, who’ll be 90 this month and was named best acoustic blues artist, played a few minutes onstage before he had his portrait taken backstage and headed back to Chicago that night in his manager’s car.

Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones, the firebrand poet and critic, seemed lost at the proceedings. Baraka, who had written an anti-Semitic poem about 9/11, was supposed to receive an award for his book “Blues People,” but apparently no one recognized him except for this reporter.

Still wearing winter tweeds, Baraka, who must be in his 70s, seemed much smaller since his black power days in the 60s and was largely forgotten until his appalling poem on 9/11. He should have received his award the night before, but he didn’t know that, so he may have left Memphis empty-handed.

The great soul-blues singer Little Milton Campbell has his own take on 9/11. Standing back stage, he told us, “When 9/11 happened, that was the only time we were one. There was no black and white. We were all Ameri-cans. Then we went right back to where we were.”

Koko Taylor, who won for best traditional blues artist, wasn’t well enough to perform. But after accepting her award, she defined blues for us.

“The blues is having a hard time,” she said. “I know what I’m singing about. I experienced everything I sing about.”

Other winners and their categories: John Lee Hooker, Jr., new artist debut for “Blues with a Vengeance;” Holmes Brothers, blues band; Willie Kent, bass; Willie (Big Eyes) Smith, drums; Bob Margolin, guitar; Roomful of Blues, blues horns; Robert Randolph (who played at Riverfest and Memphis in May) blues instrument; Jim Tullio and Jim Welder, “Have a Little Faith,” blues song; Gary U.S. Bonds, “Back in 20,” comeback blues album; Shemeika Copeland, contemporary blues artist; Hound Dog Taylor, “Release the Hound,” historical blues album, and Bobby Rush, soul blues artist.

Music Still Fills the Air Over Area

Originally posted July 2, 2005

You can create your own endless summer festival if you travel far enough to find your favorite musicians.

If you’re looking for an unusual Fourth of July adventure, you might head for the Mississippi hill country north of Greenwood, where near the community of Avalon, off Hwy. 7, relatives and fans of Mississippi John Hurt will honor the memory of the great country blues artist.

The lyrics to one of old his songs, “Coffee Blues,” asking for “just a lovin’ spoonful,” inspired the name of a 1960s rock group, whose leader, John Sebastian, will perform Mon-day near Hurt’s shack off a winding dirt road outside of town.

Sometimes you get lucky, and you’ll find good music in your backyard.

Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson appear this evening at Ray Winder Field, where tickets are still available. Dylan has been called the best white blues singer of all time, and if country is white blues, Nelson isn’t far behind.

Arkansans have heard some great music in recent weeks, including B.B. King at Little Rock’s Riverfest, the Holmes Brothers at Sticky Fingerz and, farther up the road in Eureka Springs, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Mavis Staples and Shemekia Copeland at the Eureka Springs Blues Festival, which attracted hundreds of bikers who came to town to show off their Harleys.

The Holmes Brothers — Wendell on electric guitar and Sherman on bass — are a gifted pair of musicians who play gospel-tinged blues with a drummer to round out their trio.

They played to a smallish crowd on a recent Tuesday night, but they were as enthusiastic as they were at last year’s King Biscuit Festival and at last May’s Handy Awards in Memphis, where they were named best blues group.

The Holmes Brother grew up in church and have moved beyond gospel into the secular world of the blues.

Their gospel-flavored CDs include the award-winning “Simple Truths” (Alligator), as well as “Promised Land” (Rounder), both a pleasure to listen to, especially on a rainy day.

The Blind Boys of Alabama never left the church. Dressed in long blue coats, they sang gospel for more than an hour in the old Eureka Springs Auditorium with their leader Clarence Fountain, along with Jimmy Carter, both original members of the group. (George Scott, another original member, passed away this spring.)

More than halfway through the show, Carter was led off stage and walked up and down the aisles, still singing and calling for a church service right then and there.

You haven’t lived till you’ve heard the Blind Boys of Alabama sing “Amazing Grace” like no one else can. Music in Heaven must sound something like the Blind Boys.

Their CDs include the Grammy Award-winning “Higher Ground” (Real World) with Robert Randolph and the Family Band, as well as “Oh, Lord, Stand by Me” and “Marching up to Zion,” which are two early LPs on one CD, and “The Sermon” (all from Specialty).

Three weekends ago, B.B. King returned to his home town of Indianola, Miss., where he helped break ground for a $10 million blues museum and performed at the city park. He played at the Club Ebony after 1 a.m. and didn’t stop till almost 3 a.m. He said he could have played all night, but the band looked tired, so he stopped.

Chris Thomas King (no relation), who acted in the movies “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Ray,” played a couple of numbers at the club, including “What’d I Say?,” before B.B. showed up. The next evening at the club before a small crowd, Chris, a gifted musician, put on a great show for a couple of hours.

The lucky few who were there caught a great performance.

Most blues fans had headed out of town that night, down to Pickens, Miss., where B.B. King played for two nights at the 42nd Medgar Evers Homecoming, a fundraiser in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

Charles Evers, his older brother, gave a moving address about the long struggle to achieve equality for black people, including the right to vote, and at one point, Evers held back tears, and King reminded the white people in the audience that 40 years ago it was against the law for blacks and whites to sit together.

Then it was back to more music. B.B. gave the band the cue to play Brinkley native Louis Jordan’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” reminding us once again that the blues is not always sad. You’ve got to leave the hard times behind as much as you can and have some fun.

Have a great Fourth of July and enjoy the music.

Death of a Tenor Giant

Originally posted July 16, 2005

Stubblefield passes after long illness; Big George Brock on CD

John Stubblefield, a great tenor saxophone player who was born in Little Rock and worked as a jazz musician in New York with some of the most talented people in the business, died on the Fourth of July at the age of 60 after battling prostate cancer.

Stubblefield’s death has hardly been noted in Arkansas — the Little Rock paper published only a small paid obituary

announcing his passing — although former Presi-dent Bill Clinton and comedian Bill Cosby visited him a few weeks ago at the hospital. Clinton told him he hadn’t played his saxophone in three years because he’d been busy writing his autobiography, and then his heart surgery made it difficult to play. Clinton also visited other patients before he left the hospital.

Stories about Stubble-field and his music appeared on the Internet as soon as his death was announced.

The New York Times ran an article that was placed prominently on the top left-hand corner of its obituary page, and deservedly so.

Stubblefield played and composed for the Charles Mingus Big Band and also played with Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Mary Lou Williams and other stellar musicians. He was among a small group of brilliant saxophone players who grew up in the Little Rock area — the others are Pharoah Sanders and Sam Rivers (both still going strong) — and all three are admired by both fans and fellow musicians for their powerful sound and sweetness of spirit.

It figures that Arkansas would produce three first-class musicians who could play ferocious jazz and still sound lyrical when they wanted to, and be as down-to-earth once they put their instruments down.

Stubblefield appeared with Rivers a couple of years ago at UALR when Rivers returned here for the first time in more than 50 years. Sanders, who was known as “Little Rock” when he lived in New York, also made a rare appearance here last fall when he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

“Family Portrait” (Audioquest) is one of Stubblefield’s best CDs and includes Eduardo Simon on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. Stubblefield dominates the CD with his rich, full-throttle sound.

He is also heard on McCoy Tyner’s Big Band CD, “Journey” (Verve) with an all-star cast: Tyner on piano, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Steve Turre and Frank Lacy on trombones and others.

Friends and family held a celebration of Stubblefield’s life on Thursday in Little Rock. Funeral services were held Friday. He’s gone, but his music lives on.

Roger Stolle, who owns Cat Head music shop down in Clarksdale, Miss., has started a record label so the whole world can hear the Mississippi-born harp player Big George Brock, a 73-year-old bluesman with a sound as big as a freight train hurtling through the cotton fields in the Delta.

Cat Head has just released Brock’s “Club Caravan,” featuring the Houserockers for 50 raucous minutes of classic blues that will take you back to 1950s Chicago, although Brock, a former boxer who was born in Grenada, Miss., has lived in St. Louis for most of his life.

Big George composed most of the music on “Club Caravan” (named after one of the blues clubs he ran in St. Louis), with some Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy William-son and Mud-dy Waters tossed in to spice things up. But this is Brock’s show, which sounds like one of his marathon juke joint performances.

All you have to do is hit replay and keep listening to a genuine master of the Delta blues.

Big George is one of the last of the authentic Southern bluesmen. Most people don’t even know they’re still around. When they’re gone, their music will only be heard on CDs and LPs. Stolle has recorded one of the best.

“Club Caravan” is available from www.cathead.biz.

Blues Symposium in Oxford


(Originally posted March 4, 2005)

Blues scholars and fans gather every February for the Living Blues symposium at Ole Miss, where scholars like Sam Charters and Paul Garon discuss the history of the music, while fans, as well as scholars, can hear some real downhome blues and gospel, too.

The Campbell Brothers opened the musical proceedings last weekend at Second Baptist Church in Oxford with a sacred steel concert. Brothers Darick and Chuck Campbell play lap steel guitars, while another brother, Phil, plays the guitar, and Phil's son, Carlton, plays drums. Their cousin, Denise Brown, is the vocalist, and Malcolm Kirby plays bass.

The Campbells, who belong to an African American Holiness-Pente costal church in Rochester, N.Y., are exciting musicians who bring their audience to their feet with the fervor of their steel guitars, one on the left and another on the right. The steel guitars seem to sing along with Ms. Brown, who shouts out her songs, clapping her hands and praising the Lord. The drummer belts out a beat that keeps the devil away. The audience moves with the music until it reaches an emotional peak that slows down only when "Amazing Grace" is performed near the end of the concert.

Precious Bryant from Georgia played a brief set at a club in Oxford Square, while Chick Willis followed her for a couple of hours, walking through the crowd with his guitar, to the delight of the audience. B.B. King was last year's star attraction, and last weekend it was the great country blues singer David Honeyboy Edwards, who is almost 90 years old.

He's a living blues encyclopedia, born in Mississippi but now living in Chicago who has known almost all of the great bluesmen of the last 70 years. Honeyboy showed up on campus Saturday afternoon for a discussion with Jim OÕNeal, one of the founding editors of Living Blues magazine. Walking into the room where several panel discussions were held over the weekend, Honeyboy looked sharp in a new overcoat and hat. He's a little hard of hearing, but his mind is sharp. He recalled events that happened more than half a century ago.

"We played in Stuttgart, Arkansas," he said at one point in the discussion with O'Neal. Honeyboy talked about the night Robert Johnson was poisoned in a juke joint near Greenwood, Miss., where they were both performing in the summer of 1938. A jealous husband supposedly had put poison in JohnsonÕs whiskey for messing with the man's wife. '

Honeyboy, who was then 23, watched Johnson die a slow death in a nearby rooming house. Johnson was 27. After his talk with O'Neal, Honeyboy signed copies of his autobiography, "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards" (Chicago Review Press).

We complimented him on his terrific memory, and he said, "I remember things that happened when I was five years old," he told us.

"I remember when the census taker came to our house with a book under his arm." That must have been in 1920, and you can read about it in Honeyboy's book. Last month, Honeyboy played at Lincoln Center in New York. Last Saturday night, he played for an hour at a juke joint north of Oxford, where the bartender offered us moonshine from under the counter.

We declined, although we weren't afraid of getting poisoned. Honeyboy sang "All Your Love" and "That's All Right" and other country blues classics while a young black man stood up in front of him and danced to the music. The crowd was about evenly divided between whites and blacks. The white fans had come out to the juke joint to hear Honeyboy, but most of the black folks had never heard of him and had come to hear a younger musician named Duwayne Burnside, the son of bluesman L.R. Burnside, who had a stroke recently and canÕt play anymore.

Jim O'Neal, who was at the club, told us, "I was interested in seeing the reaction of people in a place like that, which I thought was pretty good compared to what I've seen sometimes when old-timers perform in a black venue."

Of course, it was a pretty mixed venue Saturday night. There was no reason any of the black crowd would have known who (Honeyboy) was. He's a legend among country blues aficionados today, but he never had anything resembling a hit record in the black community, and, in fact, barely recorded for that market at all.

"Duwayne Burnside and his band had some sound problems, but they were good, playing in a funky Albert King style, "O 'Neal said.

After the show, in the middle of a rainy night, Honeyboy's manager drove the old trouper back to Chicago. They must have made it back sometime next afternoon

Pharoah Sanders in Little Rock - A Genius at Work


(Originally posted: Nov. 14, 2004)

After the steady rain that fell during the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena earlier this month, the appearance in Little Rock a couple of weekends ago of Pharoah Sanders, the jazz tenor great, was like a hot blast from a fired-up furnace.

The fiery Sanders put on an amazing 90-minute program at the Statehouse Convention Center the day after he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. The 100 or so lucky people in attendance heard the best jazz in Little Rock in years, at least since Joe Lovano and the late Joe Henderson, two other tenor players, performed at Wildwood along with a dozen other jazz greats eight years ago or so.

Sanders, a Little Rock native who lives in California, let his quartet do a warmup before he walked onstage, and he was all business, wearing dark glasses, blue shirt and dark pants. Without uttering a word, he let loose a wail that told you we were in the presence of a first-rate musician who plays from the soul, or he doesn't play at all.

He performed his own compositions, including his stunning signature tune, "The Creator Has a Master Plan," which Sanders first recorded in 1969 on his Impulse LP, "Karma." (It's available as a small gatefold CD. The 60s Impulse LPs and CDs are worth collecting for their distinctive packaging alone.)

"The Creator Has a Master Plan," which may be Sanders' masterpiece, is a long hymn that lasts almost 33 minutes on the record. He played it for almost as long at his concert, which featured his long-time accompanist William Henderson on piano.

Sanders plays mostly his own compositions, but occasionally he will do a standard like "My Favorite Things," which John Coltrane recorded more than 40 years ago and turned into more than pop music. Sanders, like Coltrane, deconstructed it, turned it inside and out and shook it up and created great art in the process.

Sanders played and recorded with Coltrane for a couple of years in the 1960s, including a live recording at New York's Village Vanguard nightclub and a studio recording called "Ascension," which "The Penguin Guide to Jazz CDs" lists as one of the greatest jazz records of all time. Sanders was into fierce, free-form jazz with Coltrane, who in his later years was abandoning more traditional playing, much to the disappointment of many critics. Coltrane died in 1967, but Sanders has kept Coltrane's spirit alive while mellowing at the same time.

He can let loose when he wants to, but Sanders today plays beautiful lyrical jazz that is more reminiscent of an earlier Coltrane. Check out Sanders' "Save Our Children" (Verve), which came out in 1998.

He may have played it at his concert, but because he didn't give their titles, I can't be certain. But the music on the CD is as profound and moving as anything in modern jazz. Listen to "Midnight in Berkeley Square," and it will make the blues go away if your candidate doesn't win next week: This is music from the heart, the work of a jazz master who has complete control of his instrument.

He was certainly in control during his Little Rock performance: Powerful and lyrical at the same time, subtle and piercing.

They called Sanders "Little Rock" when he moved to New York. He's the Arkansas' greatest jazz musician, but he's more than that: Sanders belongs in the world jazz pantheon, not just the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame.

Those who missed Sanders at the Statehouse Convention Center missed the best concert of the year, perhaps the concert of the decade. Let's hope he comes back soon and he'll perform before a bigger audience.

In the meantime, check out Sanders on Coltrane's "Live at the Village Vanguard Again" and his own "Save Our Children" and "Karma." You'll hear genius at work.

John Hurt Festival in Avalon, Miss.


(Originally posted: Aug. 17, 2004)

Held during the Fourth of July weekend, the second annual Mississippi John Hurt Blues and Gospel Festival in Avalon, Miss., wasn't easy to find, but if you turned off Hwy. 7 and kept going up a hill on a narrow dirt road that wound its way through the woods and past a handful of houses and you followed the signs and your instincts, you came across an opening that looked like the top of the hill, where you saw the great bluesman's shotgun shack and maybe 30-40 cars parked nearby.

About 15 miles northeast of Greenwood, Miss., Avalon is a tiny hamlet that straddles the Delta and the hill country.

Avalon was where Hurt lived for almost his entire life.

Mary Hurt Wright, the great man's granddaughter who lives in a newer house near the old shack, had organized the festival and welcomed musicians and fans.

The festival offered plenty of good music and barbecue, and there were several John Hurt CDs for sale.

Later, a historical marker was unveiled on Hwy. 7 as a tribute to Hurt's life and music. Alvin Youngblood Hart from Memphis (a distant cousin of John Hurt's) was among the performers at the festival.

He's part of a younger generation of musicians who are keeping blues alive with their enthusiasm and originality.

His award-winning CDs include Territory, Start with the Soul, Big Mama's Door and Down in the Alley, and he plays classics and his own songs on acoustic and electric guitar. Hart is as gifted as he's unpretentious, and it's always a treat to hear him, especially at an intimate festival where a small group gathered around him. (He'll be at Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock on Aug. 19.)

The small stage was in a shaded area just behind John Hurt's old home, which is now a museum. Perhaps 50 fans had made their way to this rural hamlet to hear several performers, among them Steve Cheseborough (the author of the indispensable "Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues") and Art Browning, but we were there to pay homage to one of the greatest folk poets of the 20th Century who toiled as a tenant farmer in the area for most of his adult life. He made some great records in 1928 in Memphis and New York and didn't record again for 35 years.

Hurt was born at nearby Teoc in 1892, and his mother soon took him to Avalon, where the family worked as tenant farmers.

As a child, Hurt got his hands on a guitar and taught himself to play all kinds of music, both black and white, because the community was integrated and he loved music from all cultures. Hurt died in Avalon in 1966, enjoying three or four years of fame as he performed at blues festivals and at coffee houses up North.

He's buried deep in the woods in a nearby cemetery.

His earliest recordings are collected on a stunning CD called Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (Columbia/Legacy), which includes traditional songs and his own compositions, among them the title track ("Avalon, my home town, always on my mind, pretty mamas in Avalon want me there all the time").

Strictly speaking, he was not really a blues player but a songster, a troubadour who sang about life as he understood it. His was a gentle voice, and he picked his guitar as if it were an extension of his soul.

This simple farmer brought to his music a conviction that is as profound and moving as it is original. He sang from the heart, and his music is timeless.

Hurt made several fine records during his brief 1960s rediscovery period, among them The Best of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard), recorded in concert at Oberlin College and includes the usual mixture of gospel and spirituals, folk songs and blues.

Vanguard has also issued The Complete Studio Recordings, a three-CD set that contains many of the songs in the live recording – "Nearer My God to Thee," "Richland Woman Blues," "Make Me a Pallett on the Floor," "Nobody's Dirty Business," "Candy Man," etc. – but they were recorded in different settings, and they're all worth hearing over again.

D.C. Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings, Vol. I (Fuel 2000 Records) is another essential recent reissue with two CDs for the price of one. Again, many of the songs appear on the other CDs, but they, too, were recorded separately.

For those who want just about everything Hurt ever recorded, check out Worried Blues 1963, Avalon Blues 1963 and Legend, all from Rounder, and they're all wonderful. Hurt always performed at his best.

Play them all and have your own Mississippi John Hurt festival at home.

Helena to Host Bluesman


(Originally posted: Oct. 5, 2004)

HELENA – The Delta Cultural Center will host another performance in its 2004 summer concert series at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10 in historic downtown Helena.

Blues greats Sam Carr and Dave Riley will be the featured performers with Steve Cheseporough opening the show. The concert is free and open to the public.

Carr, who is considered by many to be one of the best drummers who ever played the blues, didn't start out playing the drums – he first started playing the guitar but soon moved to drums.

Carr began working with his long-time musical partner Frank Frost (who died in 1999) in the 1950s, serving as the back-up band for Sonny Boy Williamson on King Biscuit Time.

The two musicians later performed together as the Jelly Roll Kings.

Riley began playing guitar at age 9. He began playing gospel music, but after a stint in the military – where he met Jimi Hendrix, Albert King and Howlin' Wolf – he turned to the blues. Riley is no stranger to Helena – he's often a featured performer at the King Biscuit Blues Festival.

The summer concert series is a production of the Delta Cultural Center's Delta Music Documentation Project.

The Delta Cultural Center is a museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

An exhibit at the Delta Heritage Cen-ter, called "Helena, Arkansas: Main Street of the Blues," focuses on the important part Helena played in the evolvement of blues music.

For blues musicians in the 1930s and 1940s, Helena was the place to be. Cherry Street and Walnut Street served as Helena's main daytime business district.

But at night, the business was entertainment. With saloons, cafes, billiard halls, gambling parlors and juke joints, Helena was a wide-open river town and blues music filled the air.

The blues was more than just a mixture of sounds and styles; it was also a product of the overall African-American experience, a unique and important expression of a distinct culture.

Although most of the saloons and juke joints are closed and many of the players are long gone, Helena still echoes the blues.

Contemporary artists with ties to Helena – including Ro-bert Lockwood, Willie Smith, Lonnie Shields, James Mor-gan, CeDell Davis and Sam Carr – still record and perform great new music.

"Helena, Arkansas: Main Street of the Blues" features a wide variety of artifacts, many of which have never been displayed for public view.

Photographs, clothing, musical instruments, magazines, posters and recordings are all a part of this three-year exhibit.

You don't want to miss the interactive computer kiosk featuring I Got the Blues quiz, Learn More About the Harmonica, Arkansas Blues Greats, and Find Your Blues Name.

"Helena, Arkansas: Main Street of the Blues is on display at the Delta Cultural Center's Visitors Center through April 2007.

For more information, contact the Delta Cultural Center at (870) 338-4350 or (800) 358-0972. The Delta Cultural Center, part of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, seeks to preserve and promote Arkan-sas' heritage as a source of pride and satisfaction.

Other agencies within the department are the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Old State House Museum, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the Arkansas Arts Council and the Natural Heritage Commission.

Blues in Helena: Singin' In The Rain


(Originally posted: Nov. 9, 2004)

Blues fans from all over the world headed for Helena last weekend for the King Biscuit Blues Festival and stuck it out despite the rain.

It rained almost the entire weekend, and the temperature kept falling, but the show went on anyway. So if you had an umbrella and/or plastic ponchos and hats, you could sit and watch dozens of musicians from one end of downtown Helena to the other.

Thousands of die-hard blues fans from as far away as Japan who had booked motel rooms months ago showed up, but just as many people who live within driving distance who had planned to attend decided not to make it this year because of the lousy weather.

It has rained the last three years, but not as much as last weekend. Festival organizers took a huge loss in vendor sales. Why not move the festival from the second weekend in October to the first weekend? It will be warmer and maybe the rain might stay away for a few years.

Corey Harris was the first big name to play on Thursday, Oct. 7, and although it was a cool evening, at least it didn't rain yet. Harris, whose African-influenced blues is not to everyone's taste, is a young award-winning musician whose appearance added a real touch of class to the festival.

It was still dry early next afternoon when singer-guitarist Dave Riley and drummer Sam Carr (a native of Marvell) put on a terrific performance, but when soul singer Toni Lynn Washington followed them, the rain started, and it wouldn't let up all weekend.

Fans could go inside one of the converted storefronts that now serve as the Delta Heritage Center on Cherry Street. CeDell Davis, a Helena native, and John Weston from Brinkley each played for an hour inside the Miller Hotel (just another storefront, really) and were given lifetime achievement awards.

Davis was really in the groove and never played better while making passes at the ladies. Earlier, another Marvell native, Robert Lockwood, Jr., the octogenarian bluesman (Robert Johnson taught him how to play the guitar back in the 1930s) did a live radio interview at noon with Sonny (Sunshine) Payne, the longtime host of KFFA's "King Biscuit Time," but the mild-mannered Lockwood could get in only a couple of words and wasn't asked to play his guitar as he did 60 years ago just across the street at KFFA's original studios.

Payne had several other guests, including a priest and a teenager, who did play the guitar. When they were finished, Lockwood seemed ready to play, too, but Payne kept talking instead.

Lockwood, one of the original King Biscuit Boys who played on KFFA back in the 1940s, finally said, "Sonny, you talk too much." That was the end of the interview. What a missed opportunity for the 50 or so fans who had crammed into the Delta Heritage Center to hear Lockwood play and reminisce about the good old days.

The next day, Lockwood put on a great show on the main stage, as he has just about every year since 1986, when the King Biscuit Blues Festival started.

Despite the downpour, we heard Robert Belfour at the smaller Houston Stackhouse-Robert Lock-wood Heritage Stage. He's an authentic bluesman and even looks the part: He was the walking musician between breaks on Martin Scorsese's blues series on PBS.

We had hoped to catch several more musicians on the small stage, but the rain was too much. We missed a couple of Piedmont blues musicians who record on the Musicmaker label, which turns all of its profits over to its artists.

Beverly (Guitar) Watkins and Cootie Stark are among two of the better-known musicians on the Musicmaker label. As luck would have it, the next day we ran into Stark, a blind bluesman from North Carolina, who was sitting alone in a car outside a record shop in Clarksdale, Miss.

He autographed our copy of "Sugarman," one of his Music-maker CDs, after we got in the car with him. Actually, he put an X on it.

We asked him if he would sing a song for us, and he wound up singing three beautiful spirituals acappella, among them "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and "Servant, Rest a While."

When he finished, he said, "It was terrible when they took God out of the schools."

We thanked him for sharing his talent with us, and he told us how he learned to play the guitar when he was a child in Abbeyville, S.C.

His latest CD is called "Raw Sugar" with Taj Mahal, a big supporter of the Musicmaker Relief Foundation.

Timothy Duffy is the group's president, and he looked dejected in the rain at Helena, where organizers wouldn't let him put up a booth because he supposedly competes with another blues charity. Go figure.

You can join the Musicmaker Relief Foundation by logging on to musicmaker.org.

The festival didn't end for us until Sunday afternoon, when we headed for Hopson's Commissary in Clarksdale, where 91-year-old Pinetop Perkins, another King Biscuit radio performer from the 1940s and former Muddy Waters piano player, put on a show with a band that included two others from Muddy's band: Bob Margolin and Calvin (Fuzz) Jones.

Although the crowd was sometimes unruly, especially after the food ran out, the music was fine and it was dry inside.

A Memorable Weekend: Blues Divas and Handys


(Originally posted: Aug. 18, 2004)

In just three years, the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., has showcased scores of talented black musicians and singers, many of them with roots in the Delta.

Located in a renovated warehouse near the old train depot, the club has become a cultural institution – perhaps even the most important blues club in the world – made possible by the generosity and commitment of actor Morgan Freeman and attorney Bill Luckett, who own the club and who want to present African American roots music that has changed the world.

Last weekend, Ground Zero welcomed the Blues Divas: eight gifted performers who have influenced modern music in many different ways. They're so talented that calling them just blues singers doesn't begin to describe their versatility.

From Friday evening to Sunday evening, in addition to the blues, you heard soul music, soul-blues, folk and gospel, and sometimes a singer would go from one genre to another, from one moment to the next, as the audience listened in amazement.

Taking over Ground Zero for eight hour-long shows, several of the divas came down from Memphis after they appeared at the Beale Street Music Festival and the W.C. Handy Awards. Deborah Coleman, Bettye Lavette and Reene Austin had performed in Memphis twice, and Odetta had attended the Handy awards show, where she was nominated for traditional female blues artist (amazingly, she didn't win).

Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles and Denis LaSalle were the other Blues Divas, although they're more soul singers than anything. Miss Staples, and probably the others, too, sang gospel since she was a child.

Freeman introduced the singers as cameras from Mississippi Public Television recorded this important cultural event. The program will also be available on DVD.

We heard most of the performers, starting with Ms. Lavette, who won a well-deserved comeback award at the Handys. She has been around for more than 40 years, having first recorded when she was a teenager. She's a soul singer with deep roots in gospel, like most of the divas at Ground Zero.

Ms. Lavette puts her heart and soul into every song, backed by an energetic band. When she sang a tearful "Let Me Down Easy," her old hit, the audience was beside itself. (Check out her live CD with the same title.)

She was followed by Irma Thomas and her New Orleans band, and she, too, had the crowd in the palm of her hands.

That's how it went for much of the weekend: Emotional music that 50 or so people in the club always found gripping. The audience more than doubled for Mavis Staples, who sounds better than ever.

She, along with her dad Pops and her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha, created American soul classics in the 60s and 70s. Mavis and Yvonne sang many of their hits at Ground Zero, including "Respect Yourself," with a little assistance from Morgan Freeman, who did a credible duo with Mavis, and "Touch a Hand," when the sisters reached out and touched the hands of their fans.

Odetta sat at the front table, and Mavis bowed down to her, calling Odetta the greatest of them all.

Odetta sang early Sunday afternoon, mixing blues and protest songs, addressing her audience if she were performing in their living room and telling them to do right and help the less fortunate. She has traveled many a lonesome road in her long career, and she will keep marching on as long as there's injustice in this world. Although she is in her 70s, she sounded as youthful as ever.

Ann Peebles was the big surprise of the weekend, belting out her hits from the early 70s, as well as new compositions, including "I Can't Stand the Rain," which was a bigger hit for Tina Turner and which John Lennon considered one of the greatest soul songs of all time.

Listening to her at Ground Zero, you can see why. Ann Peebles is a major performer deserving of wider recognition.

"The Best of Ann Peebles: The Hi Record Years" is one of the great soul collections of all time. About the only thing one would have wished for was hearing the divas sing together. Several were at the club at the same time, and an impromptu duet would have been nice, like the one with Mavis Staples and Morgan Freeman, only even better.


THE REGAL ODETTA performed at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., with a piano accompanist.

She was dressed in red a red beret, long flowing metallic red scarf and a flowing ornate red shawl. We were visited by a living legend.

Odetta sat at the front table the night before also wearing a multicolored beret as she enjoyed the performers onstage.

Sunday, perched on a stool before the microphone, she spoke of social issues and problems as she sees them: tuberculosis, homelessness, AIDS, pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease (use condoms, she said), not medicating school children who should be excited to learn not tranquilized, profiling because of race, people with money get pardons.

She also read a poem by Marianna Williamson to start off.

She sang "This Little Light of Mine," "You Don't Know My Mind," "Careless Love," which she described as country blues about being careless about pregnancy and how the apron strings weren't long enough to go around.

Odetta also sang "Something Inside So Strong," as well as "Bourgeois Town," a Leadbelly song about how he and his wife couldn't get a room in the same Washington hotel as musicologist Alan Lomax and his wife.

Odetta sang "Two Little Fishes, Five Loaves of Bread" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, Ark., although that might be disputed as "TB Blues" by Victoria Spivey.

She also sang "Weepin' Willow Blues" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

She talked about and sang a folk medley of Leadbelly's children's songs, including "Alabama Bound" and "Boll Weevil" and "The Rock Island Line" and "Loop de Loo" and "Midnight Special."

She introduced "Roberta, Let Your Hair Hang Low" and sang about returning from war needing a job.

"Mr. Parchman, open your heart," Odetta sang, just like Bessie Smith, who died in a Clarksdale hospital after an automobile accident 65 years ago.

– Eileen Feldman

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

World-Class Blues Played Near Here


(Originally posted: August 17, 2004)

A couple of great blues musicians showed up at Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock on Thursday night.

Michael Burks, probably Ark-ansas' most talented young bluesman, dropped in to catch Deborah Coleman and her band and he was impressed.

Burks has a new CD from Alligator called "I Smell Smoke," which we reviewed here recently. He'd dropped in just to listen, and he obviously liked Coleman and her band as they put on a great show.

Burks, a Camden native who lives in North Little Rock, was resting his pipes for an appearance Friday night at the Eureka Springs Blues Festival, with Buddy Guy as headliner at the auditorium. Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown plays at 9 tonight, so it's not too late to catch some music up in the hills.

Those who made the short drive to Little Rock's Rivermarket district for Coleman's show got a bargain: For $10, they heard a first-class blues guitarist who keeps improving with age: Her singing is bluesier and her guitar playing is as solid as ever.

She's as incendiary as Buddy Guy, Michael Burks or Gatemouth Brown, for that matter, and much better-looking.

Coleman played some numbers from "How About Love," her new CD from Telarc, as well as songs from her older CDs – she's been recording for almost a decade – and even threw in some Albert Collins and Louis Jordan. (Does she know Jordan was born in nearby Brinkley?)

She's an energetic performer, and the only thing disappointing about her show was the lackluster attendance.

There wasn't a lot of publicity for her appearance – a small ad for Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock's alternative weekly listed her show, but the paper ran no picture or even hinted that a first-rate blues artist was coming to Little Rock.

Coleman is appreciated all over the world, probably more than she's here. After her Little Rock stop, she headed for Oklahoma City and then she's going to Bilbao, Spain, where the local media will surely give her the respect and the publicity she deserves.

Two Festivals Compete in the Delta, but Clarksdale Wins

(Originally posted: Sept. 6, 2004)

The blues is when you organize a festival expecting 12,000 people and only about a dozen show up.

That's what happened a couple of weekends ago in Greenwood, Miss., where Robert Johnson's family put on a blues festival and no one showed up, except for some local residents and a few musicians, including the great Honeyboy Edwards, who says he played with Johnson before he died from alcohol poisoning outside Greenwood.

The blues is having a competing festival the same weekend up the highway in Clarksdale, where the 17th annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival attracted huge huge crowds, who heard a whole lot of music for three days – two days during the official festival as well as on Sunday in front of Cat Head, the blues shop that presented se-veral outstanding musicians, including Willie King, CeDell Davis, Floyd Lee, Big George Brock, James Mathus and others – and this was the unofficial festival, which gives you an idea what a great weekend it all was.

Brock and Lee also played on the main stage, while King appeared at the nearby Ground Zero, where, for $10, you could hear his group, the Liberators, play from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and eat some fine Southern cooking.

King is a great country bluesman from Alabama who has had a series of outstanding CDs out, including Handy Award winner Living in a New World (Rooster), which has one of the greatest blues CD covers of all time. It shows King playing behind a microphone in a juke joint as a couple of dancers really get down to the music.

Here's another definition of the blues: You play till 1 a.m. and drive 350 miles back to Alabama so you can sleep in your own bed, which is what King did after his gig.

The main stage area was crowded with thousands of visitors from all over the world who'd come to hear dozens of top-notch musicians. The festival is still free, and there's never a dull moment be-cause fans go from the main stage to two acoustic stages to a gospel stage, as well as nearby clubs, shaking their heads in amazement: This is where it all started and you can relive the old days.

Shardee Turner and Rising Star and Fife and Drum Band performed at one of the acoustic stages inside the old passenger depot where Muddy Waters recorded more than 60 years ago. He took the train from Clarksdale to Chicago not long after that, taking with him the Delta sound and sharing it with the world.

Big George Brock, above, is one of today's great harmonica players.

Shardee, the granddaughter of the late Othar Turner, and her band keep alive the patriarch's music, which is something between blues and what the slaves must have brought with them from Africa. Amazing stuff.

We missed Big Bill Morganfield, Muddy Waters' son, who played on the opening night, but we caught Latimore, the old soul singer who can still belt them out. Big George Brock is about as good a harmonica player as any of the blues greats, and he knew and played with most of them. He was great on the main stage and just as good in front of Cat Head.

T-Model Ford fortified himself with Jim Beam before and during his appearance, and he was obviously feeling good as he smiled throughout his performance, playing his amplified guitar so everyone in the Delta could hear his music.

Super Chicken, a local fixture, followed T-Model and played for laughs on oddball guitars that he built himself. Super Chicken is an entertainer – a songster more than a bluesman, but he's wonderful and a great ambassador for Clarksdale.

His cousin Big Jack Johnson, another local institution, closed out the proceedings with some hard-charging blues, playing past midnight with his band. They then headed for a nearby juke joint for a 1 a.m. gig. For all we know, they played all night long.

One of the pleasures of going to a blues festival is to hear country musicians whose style is as old as the music. Cadillac John from Rosedale, accompanied by Bill Abel, is one of those great old-timers who play unadorned music that the Delta is famous for.

Eddie Cusic did a terrific set at the old depot and the audience wouldn't let him leave before he did an encore

Willie King knows all about the blues because he lives it.

Robert Belfour, who hails from north Mississippi, is another terrific veteran whose genuine talent makes the music special. (Belfour was the walking musician during the breaks on last year's blues series on PBS.)

Other artists we enjoyed included Arkansans John Weston of Brinkley, a real old-timer accompanied by his daughter; drummer and Helena native Sam Carr, son of Delta legend Robert Nighthawk, and CeDell Davis of Pine Bluff, who plays his slide guitar in his wheelchair (he has polio). Davis put on two great shows with guitarist James Mathus.

We also enjoyed Floyd Lee, a Mississippi native who now lives in New York. He has a CD out called Full Moon Lightnin' (Amogla) that he recorded in Clarksdale with Carr. It's genuine down home music. A great find.

To top it all off, the Delta Blues Museum has an essential exhibition called Sweet Home Chicago, tracing the development of the music that was created by Delta musicians. It includes video, music, photographs, original instruments, clothing and more. The exhibition runs through Oct. 15, so catch it when you're in nearby Helena for King Biscuit on Oct. 7-9.


What we're listening to: The Best of Calvin Leavy (Red Clay), who is the most talented bluesman in America behind bars. Leavy, of North Little Rock, is serving life plus 20 years in Cummins Prison for drug dealing. He went to prison in 1992 and is eligible for parole in about 10 years.

His brother Hosea joins him on the CD, which consists of their singles from the 1970s and 1980s, al-though no recording dates or personnel are listed on the compilation.

There's something eerie about this hard-to-find CD (we stumbled on our copy in a bin outside Stackhouse Record Shop in Clarksdale during the festival). Although Leavy made these records some 15-20 years before he was busted, he sings about going to prison ("Cummins Prison Farm") and getting out some day ("Free from Cummins Prison"), almost as if he knew he'd wind up behind bars. He even wore a fake prison uniform in one of his publicity photos long before he was arrested.

Leavy is a gifted soul-blues singer who hasn't picked up a guitar since he went to Cummins. His subjects were grim. The song titles give you an idea: "Going to the Dogs, Part 1 and 2," "Born Unlucky," "Is It Worth All I'm Going Through," "I Want to Be the Last to Cry," etc.

It's depressing stuff, and so is Leavy's life, but his music is first-rate. If you can find "The Best of Calvin Leavy," grab it while you can.

I Can't Stop, Al Green (Blue Note), another soul gem from one of the best in the business – if not the best. The Arkansas native, now a minister in Memphis, has been doing gospel for a long time, but he returns to his soul roots on this record.

It's available on CD and on vinyl. Our copy is a two-LP set that we bought from Acoustic Sounds online for the bargain price of $14.95. It sounds great on vinyl. Green's back in his 70s soul groove with the help of his old producer, Willie Mitchell. Green's old Hi Records are back in circulation with their original covers. No soul fan should be without them.

The Best of Ann Peebles (Hi Records), Memphis soul at its best, female division. She and Green helped build Hi Records, which is now defunct, but the small label was as good as Stax in its heyday. Peebles is a great performer with a fine voice, and this is a good place to start listening to her music.

Jimmy Reed, Live at Carnegie Hall (VeeJay), is neither live nor from Carnegie Hall but a re-creation of the singer-harmonica player's New York concert in the 1960s which his record company probably couldn't afford to tape on location. The record is out on Super Audio CD, which might encourage reluctant music fans to buy the SACD equipment for the new format

A Century of Boogaloo, Starring Sam Cooke, Others


(Originally posted: October 1, 2004)


Written by Arthur Kempton

A century of boogaloo, starring Sam Cooke, others

When he was a teenager in the 1960s, Arthur Kempton would hang out at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where for a couple of dollars he could hear some of the best music performed in America, including Billy Stewart belting out "I Do Love You," a song that apparently changed Kempton's life, or at least prompted him, nearly four decades later, to write the best book on popular music since Whitney Balliett published his collected jazz writings about five years ago.

Boogaloo: The Quint-essence of American Popular Music (Pantheon, $27.50) explores the rise of what Kempton calls Aframerican music, from the blues to gospel performed in small churches and auditoriums across the country before the music evolved into rhythm and blues and soul, or boogaloo.

Young whites discovered the music in the Fifties, making stars of Sam Cooke (perhaps the most gifted performer in Kempton's book), the Temptations, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, Stevie Wonder. They're all here. The book ends with hip hop, which takes up 100 of "Boogaloo"'s 450 brilliant pages. Kempton, the son of the late, great newspaper columnist Murray Kempton, has written one of the best books on black music.

It's cultural history as literature, a book you'll consult and reread and recommend to other music fans. Generously illustrated, the book starts with Thomas A. Dorsey, who in the 1930s gave up blues ("It's Tight Like That") for the church and, for most of the last century, wrote some of the most enduring gospel songs, including "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and "Peace in the Valley," the latter also recorded by white performers, including Elvis Presley and Red Foley. Dorsey popularized gospel music among black churchgoers, who bought millions of his religious recordings, and he created a new genre, the gospel quartets such as the Soul Stirrers, Pilgrim Travelers, Highway QCs and others. Starting in the early Twenties, 11 million black Americans bought almost as many records annually.

"When the industry discovered the shadow nation of Aframerica in 1921, it was like found money in the street," Kempton writes."This new crowd was inside their emporium knocking over market stalls and display tables in their milling around, displacing old customers in their raucous urgency to be served."

Much of the music came from the South, from places like Clarks-dale, Miss., and Helena and West Memphis, Ark., and spread across the nation as blacks migrated north, east and west. If they weren't born in the South, they were just a generation removed from the plantations.

The great Sam Cooke, who started out as a gospel singer and then moved on to soul and pop, was born in Clarksdale - as were several other great black artists, including Ike Turner and John Lee Hooker, not to mention Muddy Waters, who was raised outside of town. (Junior "Mystery Train" Parker, an important soul-blues performer, was from Clarksdale, too, but he's mysteriously left out of "Boogaloo.")

Aretha Franklin, one of the many soul artists Kempton profiles, was born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, is from the Clarksdale area. Many of the great performers discussed in "Boogaloo" came from within a 100-mile radius of Clarksdale - from both sides of the Mississippi - including B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton from the other side of the river, while the flowering of talent from our side is almost as impressive, prompting blues scholar Paul Oliver to ask us recently why Arkansas is often neglected in music books.

You'll find Arkansas mentioned throughout "Boogaloo" - Sam Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers in Pine Bluff. The late Johnnie Taylor, who sang with the Soul Stirrers after Cooke's departure, was born in West Memphis, as was Al Green Junior Wells, who was also from West Memphis, is not mentioned in "Boogaloo" but should have been since he fused blues with soul as well as anybody. (Jimmy Witherspoon from Gurdon is another artist not in the book.)

But Kempton mentions Arkansas natives Louis Jordan of Brinkley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, Little Willie John of Camden and record producer Al Bell from North Little Rock, the visionary who turned Stax into a major label and, through mismanagement and bad luck, helped bring it down all within a decade.

Kempton synthesizes nearly a century of boogaloo, including the rise of Motown, the black-owned label that treated Aframerican artists no better than did the white labels. Former Temptation David Ruffin, bitter over the way Motown boss Berry Gordy exploited him, overdosed on crack. Cooke's SAR Records was one of the few black-owned record companies that enjoyed critical and some commercial success, however briefly.

Cooke sang on several SAR records, as did the Soul Stirrers, Billy Preston, Johnnie Taylor and other gifted artists, who are included in a stunning two-CD collection called Sam Cooke's SAR Record Story, 1959-1965 (ABKCO Records). You'll hear almost three hours of wonderful gospel and soul, making it a great companion to "Boogaloo." Sam Cooke, despite his personal failings, is one of the heroes of this book.

Cooke, who died young in a motel holdup, had one of the greatest voices on record. "Touch the Hem of His Garment," "Jesus Gave Me Water" and "You Send Me" are perhaps the three greatest records made by one man in this country. While Cooke and dozens of others mentioned in this book are well known, one of the pleasures of reading "Boogaloo" is discovering artists you may not have heard of and finding their records for the first time, from Archie Brownlee to Julius Cheeks, from the Simms Twins to the Valentinos, from Jimmy Outler to Curtis Womack, most of whom are on the SAR collection.

Although "Boogaloo" lacks a discography - which should be added in the paperback edition - a reader taking notes can put together an impressive list of singers and find their CDs, especially Cooke with the Soul Stirrers on Specialty Records.

While you're at it, pick up this entertaining, informative, funny and literate book. Arthur Kempton's gift for story telling and analysis helps us enjoy Aframerican music.

Blues Traveling' Another Helpful Guide to Tri-State Delta Sites


(Originally published: August 8, 2004)

B.B. King's eight-piece band warmed up the crowd for about 10 minutes while the star was still backstage at the auditorium at Ole Miss in Oxford.

When the band stopped playing, a tall middle-aged man in a dark suit walked out from stage left, but he obviously wasn't B.B. King, whom everyone was expecting when the music stopped. It took a moment for the audience to realize that actor Morgan Freeman was making a surprise appearance, and the sellout crowd gave him a standing ovation

B.B. King, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of Mississippi last month, signs an autograph for a fan after a show.

Freeman had come out to introduce B.B. and to congratulate him for having earlier received an honorary doctorate from Ole Miss. King walked out from stage right with an aide alongside him (B.B., who is 78, has diabetes and doesn't get around as well as he used to), and the audience gave this sharecropper's son a standing ovation, too.

The mostly white audience was showing its affection for two black artists who have done well for themselves far beyond Mississippi - Freeman is a major movie star and King is the world's top bluesman while many in the audience must have remembered that 40 years ago white Mississippians had rioted to keep James Meredith, a black man, from enrolling at the school.

And now they had honored B. B. King and Freeman, too. Freeman gave King an Ole Miss sweatshirt, and they hugged, and then B.B. and the band got down to business, belting out many of his hits for the next 90 minutes.

King sat in a chair in front of his band with his guitar Lucille in his lap. Three other guitar players stood behind him, while his other musicians included two on tenor saxophones, one on piano and organ, another on trumpet and one on drums.

That's a lot of punch for the price of an admission ticket, and they did not disappoint. King played his hits -"The Thrill Is Gone," "How Blue Can You Get," "Key to the Highway," as well as standards such as "Summertime" - all mixed in with some downhome humor. King sat in his chair for the entire performance, his voice less powerful than it once was, but his guitar playing was as strong as ever.

When the show ended, he stood up and showered the audience with trinkets and guitar picks, then signed autographs for a couple of hours at a reception in a nearby room. King was the star attraction at the Living Blues symposium, but several other great blues musicians were at Oxford for the weekend, playing in the small clubs on the square.

Club hopping, we caught Corey Harris and Sam Carr playing as a duo. They had recently made a wonderful CD together, called "Mississippi to Mali," which we reviewed here Feb. 21. Harris, who had a major role in Martin Scorcese's blues series on PBS, is an anthropologist-singer-guitar player who keeps exploring the African roots of the blues.

He attended a symposium on the subject at Ole Miss after playing with drummer Carr until closing time the night before. Blues scholars David Evans from the University of Memphis, Paul Oliver from Oxford University in England and others discussed the instruments found in West Africa that are related to those used by blues musicians here.

Evans has done several important field recordings and written a biography of Tommy Johnson, while Oliver, who has also made important field recordings, has written such reference works as "Conversation with the Blues" and "The Story of the Blues," which we'll review in a future issue. About the closest you can get to African music in this country is hearing the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which put on a show outside a juke joint in Abbeville, north of Oxford.

Taking the place of Othar Turner, the nonagenarian fife player who passed away more than a year ago, is his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, who is not yet in her teens.

Turner and his family played in Little Rock a few years ago, and the music is as ancient as the slave ships that brought their captives to the new continent. Jack Johnson, a great bluesman from Clarksdale, Miss., played inside the juke joint as record executives, journalists, scholars and fans from all over the world packed the metal building from the back of the bar right up to the bandstand.

This historic weekend would not have taken place without the support of the University of Mississippi, which has published Living Blues magazine for more than 20 years and is now edited by Mark Camarigg, who is committed to making the publication as vital as ever. (Watch for the magazine's special Mississippi issue next month.)

Before Ole Miss acquired it, Living Blues was published in Chicago for more than a decade, and the magazine's founders, Jim O'Neal, Amy Van Single and Bruce Iglauer, were at the symposium and enjoying the great music.

They not only founded one of the most important cultural magazines in the world, but they've helped popularize the blues in this country and around the world. O'Neal and Van Single, who were once married, have edited a terrific book of interviews called "The Voice of the Blues: Classic Interviews from Living Blues Magazine." It has interviews with Muddy Waters, Houston Stack-house, Jimmy Reed, Esther Phillips, Eddie Boyd and others. O'Neal and Iglauer also started two important labels, Rooster and Alligator Records.

Rooster has recorded little-known but gifted musicians from Mississippi and Arkansas, while Alligator started out with Chicago artists and has branched out all over the place. Iglauer is sending some of his musicians to Little Rock. The Holmes Brothers will be at Sticky Fingerz next Friday, while Arkan-sas native Michael Burks appears there on Thursday, April 8.