Monday, March 30, 2009

Second top 10: More of our favorite blues records

Leader publisher

After our recent column about our top 10 blues records, here’s a list of our next 10 favorites. (The first installment appears on our music blog at

What follows is an arbitrary listing, but the selections are often included in blues anthologies and on best-of listings. Our choices are not only important examples of outstanding blues, but the sound is the best you can expect despite their age.

Rev. Blind Gary Davis was a gospel singer, like Blind Willie Johnson (see below), but their music had the urgency of the blues even as they sought salvation in Heaven after falling for the wrong women and other distractions (“Cross and Evil Woman Blues,” “I’m Throwing Up My Hands”).

Davis made a living as a Harlem street singer and bottleneck guitar player. He sang the blues occasionally, even if he considered himself a gospel singer. Some of his best early work is found on “Meet You at the Station: The Vintage Recordings, 1935-1949” (Document Records).

Almost every number, apart from the two mentioned above, is a gospel song (“I Am the Light of the World,” “Have More Faith in Jesus,” “I Cannot Bear My Burden By Myself”), and there’s also a novelty tune called “Civil War March,” which probably dates back to the First World War, although Davis cries out, “Shoot the Jap!”

But the overall feel is of the natural blues: Heartfelt and gripping. Only the words are different. The singing is intense and the guitar playing powerful and the sound is as clear as any modern recording.

Lightning Hopkins’ “The Gold Star Sessions” Vol. I and II (Arhoolie), showcases the master of Texas country blues in his prime. Recorded between 1947-1950 in Houston, this set belongs in any blues fans collection. A successor to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Hopkins was a natural performer, especially on these recordings, before he became a blues star and just coasted for young white audiences.

Even so, he never made a bad record — “Texas Bluesman” (Arhoolie) and his Smithsonian/Folkways CD are also first-rate — but the Gold Star sessions are an excellent introduction to this important bluesman.

Skips James’ “Complete Early Recordings — 1930” (Yazoo) are unlike anything in the blues. His falsetto singing is unique to the area where he was born, near Bentonia, Miss., just north of Yazoo City. Only a handful of others preserved his style of singing: Jack Owens, who died in the 1990s, and Jimmy (Duck) Holmes, who is still performing in that haunting falsetto: “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” “Devil Got My Woman,” “Special Rider Blues” and “I’m So Glad” (copied by Eric Clapton and Cream) are important examples of the Bentonia school, which ignored the rougher style of blues in the Delta.

James was rediscovered in the 1960s and performed for a few years before he died from cancer in 1969.

Tommy Johnson’s “Canned Heat, Complete Recordings 1928-1929” (Document Records) — a 1960s rock group took its name from that song — would have been on our first top 10 list, except for the poor quality of most of what we have left of his recordings. But in this reissue, the sound on the first eight numbers, which he made for Victor, are excellent for their age and rank in importance with anything by Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. The three men were born in the same area near Jackson, Miss., but learned the blues in the Delta.

Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues,” “Big Road Blues,” “Bye-Bye Blues,” “Maggie Campbell Blues,” “Lonesome Home Blues,” “Big Fat Mama Blues” and “Canned Heat Blues” (about his addiction to Sterno, which he strained for the alcohol) “epitomized the Mississippi blues at its most expressive and poetic,” according to British blues scholar Paul Oliver, who considers Tommy Johnson at the top of the blues pantheon.

Johnson “was an individualist, whose sense of timing and rhythm, sensitive guitar playing and impressive vocal range were innate,” Oliver wrote.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s 1929 singles were cheaply recorded and are almost impossible to listen to, although Oliver thinks his “Slidin’ Delta” and “I Wonder to Myself” from that year are among his best. Johnson stopped recording after the 1929 crash and died in obscurity 25 years later.

Blind Willie Johnson is on many top 10 blues lists, even though this Texas street singer was a gospel performer. But he’s associated with the blues because of his bottleneck- guitar playing at its best. Only Rev. Davis is considered his possible equal as a slide guitar player.

Johnson’s collected recordings are found on “Praise God I’m Satisfied” and “Sweeter as the Years Go By” from Yazoo. His rough, gravelly voice will amaze from the start: From “John the Revelator” to “The Rain Don’t Fall on Me.”

There is a similar collection from Columbia, but the editors of the “Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings” consider the Yazoo twofer the better version, which earns it a crown rating, the highest designation in the guide. (Penguin rates all the CDs recommended here with a crown.)

Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “The First Recordings” (Rounder) were made in 1959, when he was 55 years old, in McDowell’s home town of Como, Miss., between Memphis and Oxford, Miss. Alan Lomax, the folklorist, had tracked down McDowell, who had never been recorded. McDowell was a fine guitar player with a powerful voice who sang the blues (“Shake ’Em on Down,” “61 Highway Blues”) and gospel with his wife Annie Mae (“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”) the tug-of-war between the secular and the sacred.

A masterful slide-guitar player who modeled his playing after Willie Johnson (see above), McDowell’s country blues were captured on record just before it was pushed aside by electric blues. Like the title of another one of his fine CDs, “I Don’t Play No Rock-and-Roll,” he played pure blues till he passed away in 1972.

Percy Mayfield’s “Poet of the Blues” (Specialty) represents a new phase in the evolution of the blues: Recorded in the 1950s, this is the start of soul.

He later became a composer for Ray Charles. His “Please Send Me Someone to Love” became a soul-blues standard. (The great Willie Cobbs sang it at last year’s Wing Ding festival in Jacksonville.)

Mayfield’s songs are not the happiest — “Strange Things Happening,” “Life Is Suicide,” “Lost Love,” “Hopeless,” — but his sound is a masterful blend of a modern sound that was to come. He did, after all, write “Hit the Road, Jack” for Charles. (Mayfield’s “Tangerine and Atlantic Sides” CD, if you can find it, sells for up to $200 on the Internet.)

Memphis Slim, whose real name was John L. Chatman, was born in Mississippi and lived in Memphis and Chicago before he moved to Europe. He was a charismatic performer with a smooth piano style. One of his best records is misleadingly called “At the Gate of Horn,” which was a Chicago folk club.

This is a Vee Jay recording reissued on the Charly label, which includes four bonus tracks not found on the original LP or other releases. Matt (Guitar) Murphy (of “Blues Brothers” fame) is one of the accompanists on this superb record. Slim was a sophisticated bluesman who was not appreciated enough in the U.S. He passed away in France in 1988.

Big Maceo Merriweather was an amazing piano player and blues singer whose voice grabs you like a straight-line wind. He’d pound the piano like someone trapped in a nightmare: “Worried Life Blues,” “Chicago Breakdown,” “Won’t Be a Fool No More,” “County Jail Blues” are just some of the titles on Big Maceo’s “Flying Boogie” (1941-1945) and “Big City Blues” (1945-1950) from Document.

This is strong stuff, especially those that were recorded during the Second World War, just before he suffered a stroke. But he still played despite his disability and passed on his style to Otis Spann, who was his great disciple in the Muddy Waters band. (Spann probably belongs on this list. Check out his “Otis Spann Is the Blues” from Candid. Muddy’s important early recordings are on our first top 10 list.)

Jimmy Reed was an easygoing bluesman whose laidback vocals and decent harmonica playing are often imitated because they seem easy to copy, and many British rockers and lounge bands have adopted his style. But nobody comes close to recreating Reed’s rocking Chicago blues by way of the Mississippi Delta.

Even if you’re not a blues fan, you’ve probably heard Reed’s music, accompanied by Eddie Taylor’s fine guitar and occasionally Reed’s wife to keep the hard-drinking musician steady: “Big Boss Man,” “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “You Don’t Have to Go,” “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” “You Got Me Dizzy,” “Honest I Do,” “Hush Hush” and a couple of dozen others.

They can be found on “Boss Man” (Snapper), a two-record CD that is as much fun to listen to as any of our top blues picks. Although there are many best-of selections, this is the one to get and worth looking for on the Internet.

It’s toe-tapping music that’s easy on the ears. You can sing along and dance to it, too.
(Next: Arkansas blues)