Over the years, probably the form of blues that has enjoyed the longest lasting popularity among fans would have to be the Chicago Blues. Beginning in the mid to late
1940s, as musicians migrated north away from the poverty of the Mississippi Delta region, they plugged in their acoustic instruments, added drums, bass, piano and created the sound that is arguably an influence on every blues band working today. Record labels such as Chess, VeeJay, Cobra, Chief, and other smaller labels captured the sound of the 50's Chicago Blues produced by artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Rush, and numerous other artists. Their songs have been compiled in so many different collections that it would be hard for a serious blues fan not to own at least some of their music in one form or another.
In the 1960s, there were many new faces on the scene in need of exposure. A couple of record labels rectified this situation by releasing anthology albums that featured a few newly recorded tracks from several artists on each album. One of the earliest examples of this was
Sweet Home Chicago, from Bob Koester's Delmark label in 1967. Though it's a single disc collection, it contains some mighty music, including the first recordings of Luther Allison, who shines on the opening two tracks with some intense guitar and vocals (backed by Fred Roulette's soaring lap steel),
offering a sign of his future greatness. In addition, Magic Sam appears on four tracks, including the brooding "That's Why I'm
Crying." Other artists with their own tracks are Louis Myers, Big Mojo, and Lucky Lopez Evans, but it's the Allison and Magic Sam tracks that make this one worth purchasing.
Also around that time, beginning in the mid 1960s, Sam Charters released a three-album set on Vanguard Records. The collection,
Chicago: The Blues Today!, didn't introduce many new faces, but reintroduced us to several that had not been heard from in a while. The first volume featured Junior Wells (with Buddy Guy), J. B. Hutto and Otis Spann. The Wells tracks feature that cocky swagger present in all of Junior's classic recordings, and Buddy Guy's backing on guitar is excellent. The underrated,
under appreciated Hutto's sides are equally impressive, and Spann, though hampered vocally by a bad cold, is a monster on the keys. The second volume features James (listed here as Jimmy) Cotton, Otis
Rush and Homesick James Williamson. Cotton's tracks, among his first as a front man, set the bar high for his future efforts (particularly his take on "Black Night"). Rush, frustrated by years of recording inactivity, rose to the occasion on his sides with some incredible guitar and impassioned vocals, while Homesick's scorching slide cuts to the bone on his selections. Volume Three is the most down-home of the set, with appearances by the legendary Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, Big Walter
Horton and Charlie Musselwhite. The revelation on this disc is the performance by Horton, who plays some of his best harp (which is really saying something). This set was originally sold as separate volumes, but in
1999, Vanguard collected them into a budget-priced three-volume set with new liner notes (plus photos by Raeburn Flerlage) in addition to Charters' notes from the original releases. Whatever format you find, do yourself a favor and check this one out.
In the 1970s, Alligator Records' head Bruce Iglauer released a sequel of sorts to the Vanguard series called
Living Chicago Blues. Iglauer released six volumes of this series, three in 1978 and three in 1980, which were later combined to a four-disc set at the onset of the CD era. This set featured many of the Windy City's current stars, most of whom had previously recorded very little or none at all (although several of these artists did eventually record again at Alligator). The first volume features Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang, Left Hand Frank
Craig and Carey Bell. Johnson's four selections are up to his usual high standards, with his stinging guitar and pleading vocals. Shaw's four cuts are boisterous fun (check out "My Baby's So Ugly"), and Craig and Bell's selections are also noteworthy. Volume Two is easily the equal of Volume One with appearances by Lonnie Brooks (some of his best work), Big Moose Walker, Magic
Slim and a wonderfully sedate set from Pinetop Perkins. Most of the performers' on Volumes Three and Four, though equal in talent, did not fare as well as the artists on the first two volumes. Volume Three features A.C. Reed (who did do pretty well, his umpteenth recording of "She's Fine" is included), Scotty and the Rib Tips (the late Buddy Scott and his band), Lacy Gibson, the late Lovey Lee (with Carey Bell), and The Sons of Blues (the Billy Branch/Lurrie Bell Edition). Volume Four showcases the always-entertaining Detroit Jr., Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, Queen Sylvia Embry, Big Leon
Brooks and Andrew Brown (an underrated artist who did two fine, but out of print, albums in the early
80s before dying of lung cancer). While the artists on the last two volumes aren't as widely known as the artists on the first two volumes, the quality of music doesn't drop off at all. For some of them, it offered some of their best exposure as musicians (Leon Brooks, Embry, Lee, Scott, Walker, Craig, and Brown have all died, but most were able to release subsequent albums). This is a fine series by Alligator, which eventually released solo albums by Jimmy Johnson, Bell, Lonnie Brooks, Magic Slim, and Reed, and is an excellent overview of the Chicago scene of the
In 1987, Alligator released a follow-up to Living Chicago Blues, featuring some of the newer faces on the scene at the time.
The New Bluebloods picked up pretty much where it's predecessor left off, with ten high-energy tracks from ten of the up-and-comers from the Chicago area. Among the artists featured were the Kinsey Report (who did three later Alligator CDs of their blues/rock fusion), Valerie Wellington, Dion Payton, the Sons of Blues/Chi-Town Hustlers (the Branch/Weathersby incarnation of the SOB's along with bassist J.W. Williams), Professor Eddie Lusk's Blues Revue, John Watkins (whose "Chained to Your Love" is one of the highlights), Michael Coleman, Maurice John Vaughn (with two Alligator albums to his credit, plus a new one on Blue Suit), Melvin Taylor (with several albums on the Evidence label), and Lil' Ed Williams (four Alligators, with one upcoming). All of the tracks are well done and it's an excellent introduction to some entertaining artists that were loaded with potential. It's a little sad to listen to it fifteen years later and consider the fate of several of them (Wellington died in 1991 from a brain aneurysm, Lusk committed suicide in 1992, and several have battled substance abuse).
Although there are other artists keeping the Chicago sound alive, such as Vance Kelly (somebody get this guy a domestic recording contract), Chico Banks, Willie Kent, Carl Weathersby, Jimmy Burns, Tre' Hardiman, Rico McFarland, Johnny B. Moore, and others, some of these guys have been on the scene for many years and there's not a lot of younger artists who are following in their footsteps (can you think of the last new Chicago artists who recorded for Alligator?). Hopefully, like many things, the blues works in cycles so other artists will soon step forward to keep the tradition alive. Meanwhile, the above collections (plus any pre-1960s collections you can find) are an excellent way to introduce yourself to some great blues.
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