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March/April 2011

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The Jelly Roll Kings
Rockin' the Juke Joint Down
Earwig Records

Jelly Roll Kings

Frank Frost, Sam Carr, and Big Jack Johnson played together for years before they were ever dubbed The Jelly Roll Kings. Frost and Carr teamed up in 1956 and Johnson joined them in 1962. They recorded a couple of times in the ’60s, under Frost’s name, once for Sam Phillips in Memphis and once for Jewel Records out of Shreveport, LA. Both of these recordings are considered essential works of post-war Mississippi blues. The band played for years in the Clarksdale, MS area, usually at the Black Fox Club, which was run by Johnson.

The Black Fox is where Michael Frank first heard them in 1975, making his first blues pilgrimage from Chicago to the south. He was struck by their unique sound, their dynamic interplay, and their versatility. He knew that they had to be recorded, but that had to wait for another three years, due to the band being split for a couple of years in between. When they reunited, Frank quickly got them into Ardent Recording Studios after a couple of rehearsals and one weekend gig at a small juke joint in Lula, MS. The recording, Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down, was the first release on Frank’s newly minted record label, Earwig.

All of the Jelly Roll Kings were multi-instrumentalists. Frost played guitar, harmonica, and later picked up organ and piano after Johnson joined the group. In addition to drums, Carr (the son of Delta Blues legend Robert McCollum a.k.a. Robert Nighthawk) played guitar and bass. Johnson played guitar, violin, harmonica, and bass. On Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down, Johnson and Carr stuck to guitar and drums, respectively, while Frost played harmonica, piano, and Farfisa organ. Frost handled most of the vocals, while Johnson sang on three tracks.

The Jelly Roll Kings tear through 15 songs on this album. Four of the songs were done spontaneously in the studio, according to Frank’s liner notes (though he doesn’t say which ones). The tracks vary in styles, reflecting the tastes of the band, which ranged from blues to soul to even country.

Frost’s numbers include selections from the catalogs of Howlin’ Wolf (“I Didn’t Know”), Sonny Boy Williamson (“Mighty Long Time”), Big Jay McNeely (“Something On Your Mind”), and Little Walter (“Just A Dream”). He alternates on harmonica and keyboards and is wonderful on both, and his vocals are also great, as he moves easily from down-and-dirty blues to soul on these tracks. Johnson handles vocals solo on two tracks, a splendid take on Clarence Carter’s “Road of Love” and his perennial favorite, “Catfish Blues.” Frost and Johnson share vocals on Frost’s ribald “Slop Jar Blues.”

Some of my favorite tracks are the six instrumentals. “Soul Love” features Frost’s piano in an almost New Orleans vein, and the relentless “Honeydrippin’ Boogie” sounds like early rock and roll. “Cleo’s Back” and “Burnt Biscuits” both feature some stinging guitar from Johnson and Frost on Farfisa, and “Jelly Roll Stroll” is a down home blues track with some fine harmonica work from Frost. “Sunshine Twist” is an instrumental version of “You Are My Sunshine” and shows that the band was as adept at country rhythms as blues.

Though Frost and Johnson received most of the accolades, the record would not have been what it was without the dependable timekeeping of Sam Carr. Never flashy, always steady, Carr was always right where he needed to be, the glue holding it all together.

After the record was released in 1979, the Jelly Roll Kings continued to receive attention, both individually and collectively. Frost appeared in commercials and even in the 1986 movie, Crossroads, and recorded several albums, as did Johnson, whose debut solo effort, The Oil Man, was one of the best blues releases of the ’80s. Sam Carr continued to play with both of his friends, either on their albums, or when they decided to get back together. Though they broke up and reformed multiple times over the years, whenever they got together to play, the magic was still there.

The trio did get together, “officially,” as the Jelly Roll Kings on record again in 1998 for Fat Possum Records, just before Frost’s death in 1999. Carr continued to record and perform up until his death in 2009. In March, the last of the Jelly Roll Kings, Big Jack Johnson, passed away. Though they’re all gone, we have their recordings, and Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down ranks with their best and is essential listening for Delta blues fans.

--- Graham Clarke


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