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November 2002

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Order these featured CDs today

B.B. King - The Vintage Years

Otis Rush - The Classic Cobra Recordings

Otis Rush - Right Place, Wrong Time

Otis Rush - Any Place I'm Going

Otis Rush - Ain't Enough Comin' In





B.B. King
The Vintage Years
Ace Records

B.B. King Even if you’ve never listened to the Blues, you’re probably familiar with the name B. B. King from his many late night TV appearances on Carson, Letterman, and Leno, as well as his commercials. There are probably more widely-known Blues musicians today than at any other time, but B. B.’s popularity still surpasses them all. His lead over the rest of the Blues pack can best be compared to Secretariat’s winning margin at the 1973 Belmont Stakes --- there’s no one close. Heck, he can’t even see anyone in his rear view mirror.

Though King has recorded almost exclusively from the early 1960s on with ABC and subsequently MCA Records (where he resides today), a lot of B. B.’s charting R&B hits were released prior to his signing with ABC. These tracks are what put B.B. on the map and are some of his finest work but, sadly, have never been as readily available to his fans as most of his later albums have been. 

The British label Ace has rectified that problem by releasing what may be one of the best box sets ever with their release of The Vintage Years. This set captures 106 of King’s 300 plus 1950s & early 1960s sides that were recorded for the Modern Records subsidiaries Crown, RPM and Kent. Although Ace has reissued many of these sides several times on various albums, this is the first time they’ve been together in one collection. In addition, there are several tracks included that were previously unissued.

The set is divided into four CDs. The first CD (“The Great B.B.”) has all the hits, many of which are still a part of his live sets today, including “3 O’Clock Blues,” “Every Day I Have The Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “Why I Sing The Blues,” “Worry Worry,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “How Blue Can You Get,” and “Rock Me Baby.” There are 24 tracks in all on this disc, over 75 minutes of sheer ecstasy. 

The second CD (“Memphis Blues & Boogie”) captures B. B. at his earlier period, with recordings from Memphis and Houston. It’s exciting to listen to him develop as an artist and amazing that he was able to develop so quickly, making the transition from a young, tentative performer to the master showman with whom we all are so familiar. 

The third CD (“Take A Swing With Me”) focuses on the late '50s, and shows B.B. adapting his style to the different musical trends that were popular at the time. Obviously his early years as a DJ, his exposure to different styles of music (blues, jazz, gospel, R&B), and his uncanny ear helped King to mold his still unique sound, and this CD shows that it was almost fully developed after only a few years of performing.

The fourth CD (“King Of The Blues”) concentrates on the latter years of B.B.’s tenure with Modern. His sound was almost completely developed by this time. He was at his peak during these recordings and would soon move on to the promise of the larger ABC label.

These recordings have been painstakingly re-mastered and the sound is absolutely fantastic. You almost feel like you’re in the room with the band. The sound threatens to leap from your speakers. 

Also included in the set is a wonderful 74 page book, with an essay on King plus interesting track by track commentary by noted music journalist Colin Escott (Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Sun Records Story), an informative essay on Modern Records by author John Broven (South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans), a handy discography, an interview with Sam Phillips, plus tons of interesting photos, many previously unseen.

This release show that King’s early output is easily the equal of his subsequent work. Fans of B.B. King, or Blues fans in general, should go out of their way to find this set. Excuse the cliché, but the Blues just doesn’t get any better than this.

--- Graham Clarke

The following is a bonus "flashback," as Graham Clarke does a comprehensive study of Otis Rush's classic recordings.

The name Otis Rush has long been associated with Chicago Blues guitar. If he had never released any other music besides his initial Cobra recordings from the mid '50s, his name would still be spoken with reverence among blues fans.  Despite his soul-wrenching guitar work and his passionate vocals, Rush has only occasionally made appearances in the studio over the past 45 years.  To quote one of his songs, he has always seemed to be at the right place at the wrong time.  Let's take a look at his studio recordings.

No blues fan who is worth his salt would be without a compilation of Rush's aforementioned very first recordings for Cobra, which are currently available as The Essential Otis Rush - The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958.  Produced, arranged, and mostly written by Willie Dixon, some of these recordings still raise goose bumps, even after repeated listenings.  Of the 16 tracks released, it is safe to say that eight of them are certified classics, with several others that are very close.  Rush's first release, "I Can't Quit You Baby" (penned by Dixon), was one of his biggest hits of his career and none of the follow-ups compared, at least in terms of sales.   Though he recorded several other successful Dixon compositions (including "Groaning The Blues" and "My Love Will Never Die"), it's clear that Rush's own compositions were much stronger.  "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)," "Double Trouble," "Three Times A Fool," "Keep On Loving Me Baby," and "It Takes Time" are songs that Otis went to again and again on future sessions, which further testifies to their greatness.  Though there is some dreck included ("Violent Love" or "Jump Sister Bessie," anyone?), the high points are so high that you won't even notice the low points.

After Cobra's demise, Rush followed Dixon to Chess Records in 1960, where any momentum he might have been building was stalled.   His tenure with Chess produced only six songs, including another masterpiece, "So Many Roads," and a scorching remake of "All Your Love."  These six songs are featured on an MCA/Chess compilation, Door To Door, which teamed Rush's sides with several of Albert King's recordings from the same time period.  Although all of Rush's songs during his Chess days were very well done (some were as good or better than his Cobra work), only a couple of songs were released and they sold poorly.

Rush's frustration would only intensify upon signing with Don Robey's Duke Records.  He recorded only one six-song session, which generated only one single, albeit a good one, "Homework."  This track was previously available on the excellent MCA compilation, The Best of Duke-Peacock Blues, which is sadly out of print.  During this time, although Otis wasn't recording, he was working, continuing to improve his already impressive skills and absorb influences, from artists as wide-ranging as guitarists Albert King and Kenny Burrell, and organist Jimmy Smith.

Also during the mid '60s, Rush recorded five tracks for Sam Charters' Chicago/The Blues/Today! anthology for Vanguard Records.  Although Otis was not happy with this session (he was sick while recording), these tracks are not bad (it is nearly impossible for Otis to do a bad song unless it actually IS a bad song) and are among the highlights of the three-volume series.

Rush finally got his "big break" in 1969, when Cotillion released his first album, Mourning In The Morning (now available on Atlantic Records).  Produced by Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites and recorded in Muscle Shoals with most of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section backing Otis (including Duane Allman on guitar), it didn't live up to all the hype that surrounded it at the time.  That's not saying it's a bad album, just an inconsistent one that didn't measure up to his previous work.  Some of the songs are just not that good (particularly the opener, "Me" and "My Old Lady") and the horns occasionally threaten to overshadow Rush on a few tracks.  Otis does a wonderful job on the album, particularly on excellent covers of B.B. King's "Gambler's Blues" and Chuck Willis' "Feel So Bad," Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield's "Reap What You Sow" and his remake of his own "It Takes Time."

In 1971, Rush recorded a session for Capitol.  For some reason, after the session was complete, Capitol decided not to issue it, not one of their better business decisions.  It languished for five years in the vaults until the tiny Bullfrog label released it.  Now available on Hightone Records, the record, ironically titled Right Place, Wrong Time, stands as Rush’s finest hour in the studio.  There is simply not a bad track on the album, which kicks off with a rollicking version of Ike Turner’s “Tore Up” and never lets up until the final cut, “Take A Look Around” (the first version of a Rush favorite, “Looking Back”).  In between, there’s the smoldering title cut, a fine instrumental (“Easy Go”), a deft cover of Albert King’s “Natural Ball,” and a moving cover of “Rainy Night In Georgia.  This is easily my favorite Otis Rush album and is the closest thing to his original Cobra recordings that’s out there. 

In 1974, Rush recorded a session for Black and Blue Records. Typical of Rush’s luck, this album, titled Screamin’ and Cryin’, was also in the can several years before it was issued.  It was reissued by Evidence in the mid '90s.  On this album, Rush does exactly what the title says, with some passionate, sometimes over-the-top singing and his ever-present guitar.  This CD features some of his most unpredictable fretwork.  With Jimmy Dawkins ably providing rhythm guitar fills and Sunnyland Slim on piano, this album is one worth finding.  Sadly, Otis was doing some of his best work in the early '70s, but no one was getting a chance to hear it.

Otis finally got a bit of a break in the mid '70s by recording a couple of LPs for Delmark, one excellent live album and the studio album Cold Day in Hell.  Though a bit inconsistent, it is a solid CD.  Some of the highlights include the gritty cover of Ricky Allen’s “Cut You a Loose,” “Mean Old World,” and the searing title cut.  While those tracks are highlights, Rush’s meandering remake of “All Your Love” is not one of his best versions.  It has been fleshed out during the CD era with an alternate take of “You’re Breaking My Heart” and an average cover of “Part Time Love,” but, as with most Otis Rush recordings, the high points are enough to make you overlook the low points.

After the Delmark release, Otis cut a session for Sonet Records in Sweden for Sam Charters in 1978.  Originally titled Troubles, Troubles, it was a low-key collection of standards that was not released in the U.S.  In the early '90s, Alligator Records bought the masters, added Lucky Peterson’s keyboards to the mix, and reissued the set as Lost In The Blues.  According to several interviews at the time, Rush was furious about Alligator tampering with his recordings without his approval and vowed never to record for the label.  Actually, the keyboards don’t interfere with (or, truthfully, improve) the recording that much.  It is, after all, a set of standards, some of which have been recorded to death.  Rush does do a fine job, though vocally he is a bit subdued.  His guitar work is as intense as it’s ever been.  Despite the controversy, many were glad that Alligator did issue this set because, at the least, it got some Otis Rush product out at a time when there was very little to choose from.

After the Sonet session, Otis did not appear in a studio again for 16 years (other than a brief attempt to record a session for Rooster Blues in the mid '80s with Louis Myers, Peterson, and Casey Jones that never materialized).  Other than a couple of live albums, Rush was inactive, frustrated by his recording misfortunes.  

In 1994, Mercury Records released Ain’t Enough Comin’ In.  Devoid of any of the big name guest stars that usually plagued most of the blues stars’ comeback albums at the time, this album was a set of mostly covers (the only exception being the wonderful title cut, penned by Rush).  Happy to once again be in the studio, it’s evident that Otis didn’t want to let this one slip through his fingers.  This is easily his most passionate work in many years.  My favorite cut is his remake of his lone Duke single, “Homework,” and his guitar is staggering on cut after cut.

Personal problems stopped the momentum of this comeback. It wasn’t until 1998 that Otis reappeared in the studio, this time for the House of Blues label.  The result, Any Place I’m Going, was worth the wait.  Although Rush contributed no new songs, he did cover his own “Keep On Loving Me Baby” and “Looking Back.  The production, by Rush, his wife Masaki, and Memphis legend Willie Mitchell, was slicker than previous releases, but that didn’t distract from the fine quality of Rush’s performance.  His emotional guitar and vocal work, particularly on “Walking the Backstreets and Crying” and “I’ve Got The Blues,” showed that he had lost none of his talents over the years.  Unfortunately, the House of Blues label folded, leaving Rush in limbo as far as studio recordings go.  

Otis Rush is the epitome of a blues artist.  His struggles in daily life and his struggles to catch a break in the recording business verify this.  Fortunately there’s still time for him to right the many wrongs he has endured over the years, and, hopefully, he will get in the studio again soon.

--- Graham Clarke

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