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March 1998

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James "Thunderbird" Davis
Check Out Time
Black Top

James "Thunderbird" DavisOne of the great blues rediscoveries of the past 10 years was when Black Top Records chief Hammond Scott tracked down the long lost blues singer James "Thunderbird" Davis. Davis had recorded several sides for Duke Records in the 1960s, traveled with Joe Tex, O.V. Wright and Z.Z. Hill, then drifted into obscurity. His Duke recordings, especially the classic "Blue Monday," were held in high esteem by collectors around the world, but few ever knew what had become of Davis. It was generally believed that he was dead until early 1988 when Scott, music writer Jeff Hannusch and New Orleans bandleader Lloyd Lambert found him living in Louisiana.

After finding that Davis could still sing, Scott rushed him into the studio with some of the regular Black Top studio cats. The result was the wonderful 1989 album Check Out Time. But just as his second career was gaining steam, Davis died of a heart attack onstage in early 1992, just before he was due to go into the studio to record his second album for Black Top.

Fortunately, we were blessed with this disc before Davis' "check out time." It was one of my favorites of that year, and I still listen to it frequently. His voice had lost none of its earlier strength, as Davis joyfully rips through a dozen solid Texas/Gulf Coast tunes.

By far the biggest winner on this disc is the slow blues "Hello Sundown," with Davis' highly emotional vocals punctuated by subtle but sharp guitar licks from Anson Funderburgh. This song should be on many lists of the best blues songs ever.

Another favorite is the uptempo "Check-Out Time," which features nice sneaky accompaniment by keyboardist Ron Levy.

Another slow weeper is a remake of one of Davis' earlier Duke hits, "It's Your Turn To Cry." This guy seems to be at his best on the mournful tunes, perhaps the best at sharing his pain with the listener since Percy Mayfield.

I never get tired of hearing still another version of "Bloodshot Eyes," and Davis doesn't disappoint with a spirited version of this jump classic. The horn section gets plenty of chance to show their stuff here.

Check Out Time closes with a very churchy version of Chips Moman and Dan Penn's "Dark End Of the Street." This cover rivals James Carr's big hit.

If James "Thunderbird" Davis' brief comeback passed you by, then you need to score a copy of Check Out Time. You'll be treated to one of the finest voices you'll ever hear!

--- Bill Mitchell

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