Blues Bytes

July 1997

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Chess Blues Piano GreatsMCA Records has made my summer a lot brighter with their ongoing Chess Records 50th Anniversary Reissue Series. While I already owned most of the recordings on these compilations, it's always nice to have them re-packaged with new liner notes and pictures. But every so often they come out with something new to me. One such collection is Chess Blues Piano Greats, a double-CD featuring songs by Eddie Boyd, Otis Spann, Willie Mabon and Lafayette Leake. This is an absolutely wonderful collection, easily one of the best of the series. I especially enjoyed the Boyd stuff. I'm not sure why he never gained the recognition of fellow Chess artists like Muddy, Sonny Boy or the Wolf. Perhaps it was because his blues had a much darker tone; Boyd's music is more akin to that of Percy Mayfield. In other words, songs that really could give you the blues! The classics like "24 Hours" and "Five Long Years" are here, as well as the exceptional "Third Degree." This disc is worth the price just for the Boyd cuts, but then you also get some really great material from the other three artists. Mabon's music was more upbeat, with well-known classics like "I Don't Know," the follow-up "I'm Mad," and "Poison Ivy." Highly recommended!

Little WalterThe other three Chess releases in this latest batch are greatest hits collections from Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Little Milton. All of their major Chess hits are here. If you're a serious blues fan, then you already know the names of the songs. If you're not hip to these cats, then these discs will serve as a good introduction to three blues legends. The Little Walter compilation contains some of the best blues harmonica ever recorded, including his biggest hit "Juke" and my personal favorite "Mellow Down Easy." Little Milton had more of an uptown soul-influenced sound, with horn-flavored classics like "Grits Ain't Groceries" and "Who's Cheating Who?" Hooker has recorded for many labels over the years; this CD covers the years from 1950 until 1966, and includes well-known standards "I'm In The Mood" and "One Bourbon, One Scotch And One Beer."

Marcia Ball - Let Me Play With Your PoodleLong tall Marcia Ball remains one of the world's favorite Gulf Coast party bands, and her fifth album for Rounder Records, Let Me Play With Your Poodle, proves that she's still got it. The title cut, which she dedicates to her own poodles, really cooks. Of course, we all know that Tampa Red wasn't referring to the canine variety when he wrote this song 60 years ago. No matter, as Ms. Ball tears up the keyboards on it. Another interesting interpretation is her rendition of Bon Ton Garlow's "Crawfishin'," on which the use of a large background chorus gives this song kind of a "Manhattan Transfer gets lost in the bayou" kind of feel. Despite her party blues reputation, Marcia also has always had a real knack with slow ballads, as we hear on "I Still Love You." Let Me Play With Your Poodle closes with an excellent cover of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927." For more info, be sure to check out Marcia's web site at www.marciaball.com.

David Maxwell - Maximum Blues PianoI'm usually not too thrilled with instrumental albums, but David Maxwell's Maximum Blues Piano (Tone-Cool Records) is good enough to change my opinion on the subject. All blues piano buffs need to add this disk to their collection, as Maxwell takes the listener on a musical tour of his many influences. The first two cuts, "Blues Don't Bother Me" and "Breakdown on the Bayou," both make David sound like he's Professor Longhair re-incarnated. Nearly every great piano player is influenced by what gets played in church, so naturally the hottest cut is the gospel number "Sister Laura Lee." And there's even an uptown soul number in "Manhattan Max." If you really must have someone singing to make you happy, there is one cut, "Heart Attack," which features the vocals of Darrell Nulisch.

Another mostly instrumental album is Ronnie Earl's The Colour of Love (Verve Records). This album is more jazz than blues, but not so much that blues guitar lovers won't dig it. Guest star Gregg Allman provides his gruff vocals on the slow blues "Everyday Kinda Man." Also very good is an extended version of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight." Hank Crawford also guests on alto sax.

Chicago blues regular Johnny B. Moore comes through with a very good CD, Troubled World, for Delmark Records. The former guitarist with Koko Taylor and Willie Dixon, is a somewhat limited but effective vocalist much like fellow Chicago axe grinder Lil' Ed. And he's a very tasty guitar player. The catchy "Troubled World" starts the album off in promising fashion, and you'll hear some of Moore's best instrumental work on "Stoop Down Baby, part two." Listening to this disc makes me long for a night of Chicago blues club-hopping. Pass me an Old Style, please.

Erica Guerin - Get RealGet Real (Kingsnake Records) is the promising debut of Louisiana singer Erica Guerin. Ms. G was discovered at last year's Baton Rouge Blues Festival by Kenny Neal and Kingsnake boss man Bob Greenlee. Her vocal style can best be described as soulful, sassy and powerful, with plenty of range. The highlight here is the slow blues "The Sun Shines On Everyone," on which Guerin sounds a lot like Aretha. There's also a nice version of Chris Kenner's "Something You Got." This young woman's got a real good future as a blues singer.

I've always been a sucker for a good soul singer, and now I can add Larry Hamilton to my list of favorite crooners. His self-titled release for NYNO Music is a strong collection of a dozen tunes produced by the legendary Allen Toussaint. This is smooth Southern soul with a heavy New Orleans flavor. The former singer with The Gladiators, Curtis Mayfield, Jackie Wilson and Al Green is at his best on a duet with Tricia Boutte, "It's Hard."

Gatemouth Brown must have found the fountain of youth, as he sounds invigorated on his latest, Gate Swings (Verve Records). Brown's Texas blues takes several steps towards swing and big band on this CD, with absolutely killer versions of classics like "Take the 'A' Train," "Caldonia," "One O'Clock Jump" and "Flyin' Home." He also takes Percy Mayfield's weeper "River's Invitation," and turns it into uptempo number. My favorite Gatemouth Brown album is a long out-of-print record that he recorded in the 1970's. Now I may have to reconsider and move Gate Swings to the top of the list.

From Denmark comes our next album, Game of Life, from the Kenn Lending Blues Band. Together since 1980, this band has some strong credentials. Lending worked with Champion Jack Dupree for over ten years, and the band recorded with Memphis Slim, Louisiana Red, Aron Burton, and others. Game of Life was recorded live at the Djurs Blues Festival '95, and features Lending's excellent guitar work in the style of T-Bone Walker and Albert Collins. For more info, contact Lending by e-mail at Kenn_Lending@online.pol.dk.

New Blues Hits from Bullseye & RounderMy two favorite passions in life are blues and baseball. Rounder Records' latest Bulleye Blues anthology, New Blues Hits, takes on a baseball theme --- even the actual CD is designed to look like a baseball. The Persuasions throw out the first pitch with their fantastic cover of Sister Wynona Carr's "Life Is A Ballgame." What follows is 17 selections from various recent Rounder and Bullseye albums --- 18 selections in all, a true doubleheader of the blues. Play ball!

Ray Drew is an Oklahoma City-based soul/blues singer with a raw, gritty style, the way soul music was meant to be sung. Too Much Lovin' is one of the first releases from Midnight Creeper Records, a division of Shade Tree Music. Drew's voice is effective, but I'd like to hear him with a stronger backing band. The highlight for me is a slower, smoother version of Wilson Pickett's "634-7589."

Junior Wells' Live at Buddy Guy's Legends (Telarc) is at least the fourth live album recorded this year at the famous Chicago blues club. This set just doesn't seem to catch fire, lacking the electricity of previous live recordings by Son Seals and Aron Burton. But it's not bad if you need a fix of Wells' music.

Two of Portland, Oregon's finest blues musicians got together last fall in both the studio and in concert. The result is a very nice CD, Hit It 'n Quit It (Lucky Records), by Curtis Salgado and Terry Robb. Salgado, who was John Belushi's inspiration for the Blues Brothers, does the vocals and blows harp, while Robb handles the guitar work. The two musicians complement each other well --- it's as if they've been partners all along. Especially nice is their extended version of "Feeling Good," on which both guys really tear it loose.

--- Bill Mitchell

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