In 1991 Alligator Records released one of their best albums ever. Unfortunately, few people bought it. As we get ready to say goodbye to the 90s, it's time to revisit what I think was one of the better blues albums of the decade.
The late Johnny Heartsman was a California-based multi-instrumentalist whose influence on artists like Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy exceeded his own recorded output. That's why The Touch should be cherished as one of the few albums by this musical genius.
Heartsman's "hammer on" guitar technique, adapted by Hendrix for the original "Red House," is his most notable contribution to the music world. But he was also adept on keyboards, bass, and flute, all of which he plays on The Touch, in addition to composing all 13 of the songs here.
The first two numbers are worth the price of the CD alone. "Serpent's Touch" and "Paint My Mailbox Blue" were staples of my old radio show, dating back to the days when commercial radio stations weren't all owned by giant conglomerates and were willing to occasionally air something a little outside the mainstream (apologies for the quick trip to my favorite soapbox).
"Serpent's Touch" is a snaky blues with strong funky, blues guitar riffs from Heartsman and some very creative lyrics about a spell put on him ..."bats all around my head, frogs hopping 'cross my feet, a sandwich made of something dead, smells like burnt monkey meat, fruit punch à la worms, and a snail, toss it three times in a rusty pail, you got that serpent's touch, and you do it well, I'm just gettin' my mind back, it must have been a hell of a spell..."
Cut number two, "Paint My Mailbox Blue," gives Heartsman a chance to show off his wonderful organ work and excellent, rich voice on this uptempo jazzy tune. There's also a real nice verse of scat singing here. What a great song!
If, like me, you dig a good slow blues, you'll like the offbeat "Please Don't Be Scared Of My Love." The three-piece horn section makes a solid contribution to this number.
Another excellent number is "Walkin' Blues," an original blues shuffle not to be confused with the classic blues tune by the same name. Heartsman kicks this one off with a blistering organ solo. I also like the suggestive line "...if you don't believe I'm a jockey, back your mule into my stall..."
I never thought I'd care for the sound of flute on a blues album, but Heartsman offers a nice instrumental in "Tongue." There are two versions of the same song on the CD, the second being the unexpurgated version with the flute accompanied by the sensuous moaning of a woman.
Johnny Heartsman passed away in 1996 at the age of 59. It's a damn shame that this fine musician wasn't recorded more frequently during his career. But at least Alligator Records had the foresight to give us The Touch. If you don't have a copy of it in your collection, then you'll want to get it while it's still available.
--- Bill Mitchell
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