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September 2004

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Various Artists
The United Records Story


Tab Smith
Crazy Walk


United Records Story

United Records was the first successful black-owned record company operated by Leonard Allen: tailor, retired policeman and one of exceptionally wide taste in music. Originally from Birmingham, he migrated to Chicago in 1917 singing in quartets. His two labels (United and States) issued some of the best performances in jazz, blues, gospel and R&B from '51-57.

Delmark records founder Bob Koester bought the United Records masters in July 1975 and is now making much of the material available on CD, including many previously unissued, recorded in studios which pioneered high fidelity recording.

The United Records Story sampler provides an excellent overview of the character of the label's music, more swinging than on the rocking side of blues of the '50s, more urban than rural in feel. It's a retro rent party captured as a photo album bouncing around in time within the scope of the label's years of existence.

Pianist Roosevelt Sykes begins in '51 reeking of early rock 'n roll due to a distorted guitar alongside. Leo Parker plays baritone sax, but not like his jazz counterparts, more of a honker akin to maybe Paul Hucklebuck Williams.

Junior Wells is captured obviously very early in his career, with the famous "Aces" of Chess Records fame backing him, his harmonica sound lighter than Little Walter's. Chris Woods is jazzy on his alto sax, quoting a Sonny Stitt/Clifford Brown line. The great Robert Nighthawk sounds almost like T-Bone Walker in voice, his usual slide guitar work of 1952 less evident.

Jimmy Coe plays upper-register tenor sax over electric organ backing. The Four Blazes sing falsetto vocal in a novelty number. "Jump Jive," a la Louie Jordan but ultra-screaming sax, describes tenor player J.T. Brown. Memphis Slim is downright wonderful, rocking along with guitarist Matt Guitar Murphy in 1954.

The mood is altered by the mystical Ray McKinstry, playing all instruments according to the original 78 label. It's jazz with a very smooth clarinet playing over a well-arranged sax section. Midway thru, the sax's go up an octave in pitch, the tape obviously doubled in speed (like the Chipmunk hits) and the clarinet plays in real time over the speed-up! Too much.

Morris Pejoe has fuzz guitar behind vocal group. Smoky, after-hours warbling finds Grant Jones' singing "In The Dark." A very typical 32-bar, blues-with-a-bridge pattern (like so many of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton's hits) provides tenor saxophonist Paul Bascomb's backing. A narrative very much in the vernacular by Dennis Binder tells of “The Long Man,” from street arrest to being “long gone.” An up, "flat tire" rhythm for the Pastels, sounding very much like the Clovers or Ravens.

The Alfred Harris track comes from an album also containing selections by Big Walter Horton. Their harmonica styles are quite similar.

Tiny Grimes plays wonderful four-string tenor guitar, coming from the Charlie Christian school, in excellent form. I've always considered him underrated. The Della Reese entry is interesting. Not really a blues or jazz vocalist, more of a hit-maker inspired by gospel, her early work was over-dramatic. What I like is the touch of soul she later mellowed into.

We have a literal boogie-woogie played on tuba by Johnny Wicks' Swinging Ozarks! Tenor Saxophonist Jimmy Forrest had perhaps the biggest hit for the United label, "Night Train," but here we have a ballad sampling, and Saturday night turns to Sunday morning with Robert Anderson's vibrato vocal with his Gospel Caravans in a stirring testimony.

Complete information and album covers from most of the releases the sample tracks come from can be viewed at

Tab SmithThe Tab Smith release consists of 1955-1957 material, partially unissued, some of these understandably. He's been widely reissued over the years on LP from Delmark so probably not an obscure name to jazz and blues collectors.

An alto and tenor saxophonist, Tab Smith has been compared to Earl Bostic and came up alongside Benny Carter and Willie Smith, but to me he comes across more as a "juked-up" Johnny Hodges. His backing seems more juke box- and hit-oriented than the Ellington or Basie sound.

Smith vacillated between the Basie and Lucky Millinder bands constantly between 1936 and '44 when he finally broke out on his own pursuing hits. This he did with the United label beginning in 1951: "Because Of You" the biggest, also "Under A Blanket Of Blue" and "Cottage For Sale." None of these appear on Crazy Walk, instead we have an amalgam of 32-bar tunes, others with electric organ backing (one of his trademarks), standards, blues of all tempos, one entitled "Bounce Blues."

Of course there are ballads and four vocals by an underwhelming Ray King. The title cut finds Tab in his typical mood: A politely honking tenor solo over swinging small-group medium tempo 12-bar blues underlined by a simple sax riff. Only one track, "Pick Up On Tab Pt. 1" was previously on CD. It's one of the few titles of this release with a harder groove.

The last two tracks have almost more of a big band/swing feel. Programming your favorite tracks rather than listening to all 24 in sequence would provide more stimulated listening.

--- Tom Coulson
Broadcaster/musician, read my music column

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