Long time readers of Blues Bytes have read several of our contributors' fond memories of Black Top Records. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the little label from New Orleans (distributed by Rounder for many years, then Alligator briefly) released some excellent blues albums from many artists in the South that probably never would have gotten a chance to record otherwise.
Black Top mostly featured releases by individual artists such as Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, Hubert Sumlin, Robert Ward, Bobby Parker, Ronnie Earl, James "Thunderbird" Davis, and many others, along with the occasional compilation disc (many of which featured previously unreleased tunes). Also, their Black Top Blues-A-Rama series of live shows recorded during Jazz Fest in New Orleans deserves a Flashback of its own.
The label only released one anthology album, but it was a good one that captured the true essence of the label. Gulf Coast Blues, Volume 1 featured four different acts, including singer/pianist Carol Fran and her husband, guitarist Clarence Hollimon, Houston guitar legend Joe "Guitar" Hughes, former Little Richard saxman Grady Gaines, and Houston composer/pianist Teddy Reynolds. Each artist got several tunes to strut his or her stuff and to those who heard it, the results were magical.
Fran recorded a number of regional hits for Excello and Khoury in the '50s and also Mercury in the '60s. She even toured with "Thunderbird" Davis in Guitar Slim's revue. Fran and Hollimon kick things off on this release with two dynamite tunes, the peppy "Everything Is Not The Same," which features Fran's big voice (alternating English and French lyrics) and Hollimon's sizzling guitar fills. Hollimon was easily one of the best blues guitarists at saying so much with so few notes and he played with exquisite taste and style. Fran's second song was a soulful remake of her first hit, "Emmitt Lee." Fran eventually became Black Top's first female artist, and she and Hollimon released two fine albums for the label and another for JSP before Hollimon's untimely death in 2000.
Joe "Guitar" Hughes had already released an album for Black Top in 1988 (If You Want To See The Blues) when he appeared on this disc. Though not as big a name as other Texas guitarists at the time, like Albert Collins and Johnny Clyde Copeland, he had a crisp, slashing guitar style all his own and his music was a solid mix of blues and soul. His vocals were also solid and his two contributions here, "Miss Too Fine" and "Apron Strings," are solid examples of Texas blues and featured Anson Funderburgh and his Rockets, along with Grady Gaines. Hughes went on to record several more discs before passing away in 2003.
Grady Gaines' two-song contribution to Gulf Coast Blues has an interesting origin. Initially, he was not slated to appear as a leader on the disc, since he had just released his own album for Black Top with his band, the Texas Upsetters, but he hoped that the label would release his "Lonesome Saxophone Part 1" and "Part 2" as a 45 in Texas and Louisiana. Indeed, the pair does remind you of those long-ago double-sided jukebox instrumentals that were so popular in the '50s and '60s with Gaines' saxophone wailing madly and Funderburgh's nasty guitar breaks. Gaines recorded a later disc for Black Top in the early '90s and is still going strong.
Closing out the album is the "Shaggy Dog" Man, Teddy Reynolds, who played piano for such Texas luminaries as Bobby Bland, Collins, and Copeland, and recorded sporadically in the '50s and '60s. Reynold's was also an above-average songwriter with a vocal style that brought to mind Lightnin' Hopkins. Reynolds' four selections show a wry sense of humor and with a solid band behind him, including George Porter on bass and Hughes and Funderburgh on guitar, he clearly shows that he deserved his own release. Unfortunately, Reynolds became ill and was only able to make a few more appearances on disc before dying in 1998.
Sadly, there was never a Volume 2 of Gulf Coast Blues, and Black Top Records is a fading memory after finally going belly-up in the late '90s after a distribution deal fell through. Luckily for us, there are still plenty of chance to pick up copies of their catalog at sites like Amazon, Ebay, and numerous other stores that sell used or out-of-print discs.
If you're a newcomer to the wonders of Black Top Records, consider making Gulf Coast Blues, Volume 1 your first objective. You'll be glad you did.
-- Graham Clarke
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