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One of the best song stylists of the late 20th century, never too far from the blues, never limited to the blues, Etta James recorded for 15 years (1960-1975) for Chicago-based Chess Records. All her classics, and almost all her chart hits, were recorded at Chess. It was also during this time that she developed her many talents. Before joining Chess, she was strictly an R&B singer. (She also developed a serious heroin addiction that never affected the quality of her singing, but that must have prevented her from reaching even higher standards.) Therefore, the three-CD boxed set Etta James: The Chess Box (MCA/Chess) can be viewed not only as a great overview of her Chess stay, but also as a fairly good introduction to the best of Etta James' entire career. As is customary with other Chess boxes, the songs on this set are arranged chronologically, which enables an easier understanding of the evolution of Etta James. She arrived at Chess in 1960, after five years with Modern, when she was 22. Right away, her recording of "All I Could Do Was Cry," a super-sentimental ballad with orchestra, vocal chorus and flutes, was a major hit --- #2 on the R&B chart, #33 on the Pop chart. This crossover potential, and its financial rewards, was quickly seized upon by Leonard Chess, who proceeded to record the young singer with strings, usually singing jazz standards in a pop way. The formula proved a winner: "My Dearest Darling," "At Last," and "Trust in Me" all proved to be crossover hits. All these, and more, show Etta James' voice at its purest. Once in a while, she would cut loose with R&B/soul or blues numbers (like a sexy take on "I Just Want To Make Love to You"), but mostly the first CD (1960-1962) of the boxed set shows Etta James-the classy ballad singer. (A note of interest: on the tear-jerker "Stop the Wedding"--- there is a spoken intro by an anonymous "priest," which I believe to be Willie Dixon.) There are two previously unreleased tracks on this first CD, both bass-driven R&B numbers.
Things get really interesting on the second CD (covering 1962-1969) ... except for the first couple of songs (country ballads with strings and Jordanaires-type back-up singers!), most of the songs are in the soul (sometimes funk) idiom, including her masterpiece, "Tell Mama." But Etta James had this gritty, deeply impassioned quality to her voice, and though she rarely recorded pure blues, she often sounds like a blues singer. One rare instance of blues singing is her live 1963 cover of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do." Myself, I go for her 1966 duet with Sugar Pie DeSanto ("In The Basement") and her great 1967-68 sides cut in Muscle Shoals. These came after a relative drought (some four years without a major hit), and they rejuvenated her career ... they were also her last chart successes. One of the four previously unreleased tracks of this CD, her take on the Doors' "Light My Fire" is hands down the strangest cut on this boxed set (and definitely not the best one).
The third CD (1969-1974) opens with two more unreleased tracks recorded at the same session that gave "Light My Fire." These three tracks were only now salvaged from a botched 1969 Paul Simon co-produced album that never saw light of day (never was completed, in fact), because Miss James "was f**ked up," according to Marshall Chess. Three more rare or previously unreleased tracks come from a planned (and completed, but never released) 1973 album in the Philly soul style. This makes this third CD a must for collectors. Casual fans should like it too. Though the hits had dried up by then, Etta James was still a great singer, her voice having deepened but not yet coarsened. Towards the end of her career, she became an album-oriented artist. The last 11 tracks come from two Gabriel Mekler produced albums (if one counts the last track, which appeared on the CD reissue of Come a Little Closer). Great sound, great music, excellent presentation --- this is a superior boxed set, perfect for the fan and the neophyte alike. It is not without a few flaws, though. Oddly, her version of "Spoonful" (cut a mere 2 months after Howlin' Wolf did his) is not properly credited (it was a duet with Harvey Fuqua). The track listing towards the end of the 40-page booklet inexplicably reverses the order of two songs on the third CD (the correct order is to be found on the back of CD/booklet case). There are a couple of discrepancies between Lee Hildebrand's notes and the track-by-track session data. And the 72-track set includes most, but not all of Etta James' hits during her Chess stay. Her covers of "I Got You Babe" and "Leave Your Hat On" charted in 1968 and 1974, respectively. But these are all minor (microscopic) quibbles. All in all, this is what every boxed set should be --- more than 3 hours of great music! So go ahead, ask Santa for it.
--- Benoît Brière
My love for the music of Robert Nighthawk (aka Robert Lee McCoy) has been well-documented on the pages of Blues Bytes. So you can bet I'm going to gush about the re-issue of Live On Maxwell Street 1964 (Bullseye Blues & Jazz). This set of raw, street side blues was somewhat poorly recorded (although I've heard much worse from live recordings), but the questionable sound quality doesn't mask the pure, unrestrained energy of the music made on that September day in Chicago. This is urban Chicago blues at its best! Backing Nighthawk on this sidewalk session was Johnny Young (rhythm guitar), J.B. Lenoir (vocals on one cut --- "Mama Talk To Your Daughter" --- previously unreleased), Carey Bell (harmonica), and Robert Whitehead (drums). Nighthawk is in great form, especially the frantic version of "Honey Hush" and on a medley of two of his biggest hits, the intense slow blues of "Anna Lee" and "Sweet Black Angel." Bell was also at his best on "Juke Medley" and "Maxwell Street Jam." I don't think I've ever heard him play better than on the latter song. Overall, there are five additional cuts that weren't on the original release, and all recordings have been re-mastered for better sound quality. The 13-minute interview from the original album is still here. This CD gets the highest possible recommendation from me. The blues just doesn't get any better than this!
Another re-issue which falls into the "essential" category is Calling All Blues (Fuel 2000 Records), containing the 1957 to 1963 recordings by Junior Wells for the Chief, Profile and USA labels. Many of Wells' best-loved songs are here, such as the classic "Messin' With The Kid," "Little By Little," "Universal Rock" (with Earl Hooker), "It Hurts Me Too," "She's A Sweet One," and "I Need Me A Car." Junior's best harp playing can be heard on the slow blues "Calling All Blues," which was another of the recordings with Hooker on guitar. Another lesser-known classic is the uptempo shuffle "The Things I Do For You," with a great sax break presumably by Jarrett Gibson. These sides have been released before. If you don't have them, then your collection of classic Chicago isn't complete without this CD.
Geoff Muldaur has never recorded enough albums to satisfy his fans, so the release of Password (Hightone) is reason for jubilation. This CD is the follow-up to his 1998 album, The Secret Handshake, which was about the first recording in his name in about 20 years. Password contains mostly traditional folk/blues/gospel songs, with a few originals. Muldaur is a very creative songwriter, as demonstrated on the first cut, "Kitchen Door Blues," with great lines like "...an old lady died from a common cold, she smoked cigars, and was 90 years old..." David Lindley contributes nice acoustic slide guitar to this cut. There's a fun Christmas song, "At The Christmas Ball," featuring Muldaur's daughter Clare on vocals ... this number has a real old timey, Victrola kind of sound to it that takes the listener back to a much earlier era. Another strong number is the gospel tune "Wait 'Til I Put On My Robe," with harmony vocals from the McGarrigle sisters and pump organ by Van Dyke Parks. Just when you think that you've figured out this album, then Muldaur turns around and electrifies the old Blind Willie Johnson song "Trouble Soon Be Over," giving the tune a very contemporary feel to it. Muldaur takes the listener on a trip to the old West with "Prairie Lullaby," which in less talented hands would sound dated, but here sounds as fresh as ever. For those of you who remember Muldaur from his days in the Kweskin Jug Band, then you won't be disappointed by the slow-paced "K.C. Moan," highlighted by Muldaur's banjo pickin', exquisite harmony vocals again from the McGarrigles and others, good harmonica from John Sebastian, and jug blowin' from Fritz Richmond. The album ends with Muldaur performing solo acoustic guitar and vocals on the pleasant blues "Got To Find Blind Lemon, Part Two." This album isn't for everyone. But for lovers of traditional music in a variety of styles, it's a keeper. I enjoy it more every time I hear it.
In a similar style to the Muldaur album is an excellent independent release from Greensboro, North Carolina, Fringeland (Flyin' Cloud Records), by Bruce Piephoff. This collection of an astonishing number of 23 cuts are all original compositions in a folk/blues style. Piephoff's songwriting style is reminiscent of that of Chris Smither ... in other words, a lot of creative, real-life stories, many in a 'tongue in cheek' style. For example, Piephoff sings a great line in "The Wind From Newport News, "...woke up with a woody [pause] guthrie song in my head..." Get it? This cut includes very nice dobro playing from Scott Manring, who also shines on "Folk Highway." Piephoff is a fine instrumentalist in his own right, as he shows with this acoustic guitar pickin' on "Little Norfolk Girl." If you're looking for one more great song for your holiday party tape, then you'll want to dub a copy of the humorous "Christmas At The Laundromat." Piephoff also sings about the dilemma facing many American musicians on "Big In Slovenia," as he tells a story about his record getting regular airplay overseas, but of course he can't get played in the U.S.A. On a more personal note, I lived in Greensboro more than a decade ago, and enjoyed hearing the references to places I used to frequent, like Robinson's Restaurant, Suds & Duds, and the Hong Kong House. But even if you've never set foot in Greensboro or even in Slovenia, you'll enjoy Piephoff's music on Fringeland. Send e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
The Vivino Brothers Blues Band is best known for their work on late night TV. But their self-titled CD on DMP Records should bring them additional acclaim. It's mostly funky and jazzy blues, with the B-3 of Brian Charette and the sax of Jerry Vivino standing out. Not to be overlooked is the guitar work of Jimmy Vivino ... I think is best stuff is on the country blues number "Knockin' Myself Out" and on the funky slow blues instrumental "Itchin' & Scratchin'." Both brothers star, Jimmy on vocals and Jerry on sax, on the soulful "Jealous Kind." Jimmy's best (and grittiest) vocals come on the Van Morrison song "Feedback Out On Highway 101." Worth checking out.
A surprising release from Atlanta comes from guitarist Forrest McDonald, What's It Gonna Take? (World Talent Records). McDonald is joined here by singer/keyboardist Raymond Victor with his 3D Blues Band, and two special guests, guitarist Roy Gaines and harmonica player James Montgomery. McDonald is a versatile guitarist who shows his best licks on the Jimmy Witherspoon jump tune "Call My Baby." He also shows the ability to play in more of a Santana-style on the jazzy instrumental number "Alligator" (which also spotlights sax man Dave Parnell), and to get down with a slow blues on "Roll on Katy." My favorite cut is the one featuring Gaines, the soulful shuffle "Slippin' Out." Victor demonstrates both his instrumental and vocal skills on the opening gospel-flavored jump tune "Work Work." He's an effective singer with a big of a growl to his voice. What's It Gonna Take? surpasses most independent releases in both quality of musicianship and production.
From the other coast comes another indy, Drive (Vida Pop Records), from guitarist Timothy Mank. This disc is more rock than blues, but Mank does get a little funky at times, like on the songs "My Woman" and "S.O.S." "London Town" is kind of a walking blues shuffle, but still has more rock in the mix than blues. Your interest in searching out this disc will depend on your personal taste. But if you're looking for a straighter blues sound, then this isn't the CD for you.
I have mixed feelings about Reservation Blues (Bullseye Blues & Jazz), from Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. He's always been a bit of a schizophrenic performer ... there's Eddy the bluesman, then there's also Eddy the Chuck Berry imitator. I've always preferred his blues stuff, and the strongest cuts on this CD show that this genre is Clearwater's strength. He opens the CD with a strong blues number, "Winds of Change," with some great singing. "Find Yourself" is a solid slow blues, with good harp blowing from Carey Bell. Even better is the title cut, another slow, 12-bar blues, which starts out with the song's recurring theme "...I'm like a man out on the desert, walking on the hot sand with no shoes...REPEAT...I'm like a chief with no squaw, I've got the Reservation blues..." Dennis Taylor provides superb tenor sax on this number. Also good is the old time, jangly gospel sound of "Walls of Hate." Reservation Blues was produced by Duke Robillard, who also contributes his always-strong guitar work to the CD. Worth buying for its strong points.
We'd all spend more time at our neighborhood tavern if a band like The Hollywood All Stars played there on a regular basis. These cats were regulars in the Hollywood neighborhood, located in the north central part of Memphis. Hard Hitting Blues From Memphis (High Water / HMG) was originally released on vinyl in 1987, and has now been re-packaged by HMG for CD with three extra tracks added to the original nine. The title of the CD sums up the music you'll hear on the CD ... it truly IS hard hitting blues, and of course it's from Memphis. There's nothing too original with the music. But the All Stars, lead by guitarist Ben Wilson, put their own personality into every song. Wilson shares the vocals with saxophonist Gilmore Daniel, and they provide a nice contrast throughout the disc. Wilson is a grittier, back alley type of singer, while Daniel puts out a smoother, more laid back sound. My favorite cut featuring Daniel is the mid-tempo shuffle "Better To Take Than To Give." Adding a soulful touch to this and many other numbers is the cheesy organ of William "Boogie Man" Hubbard. Wilson's guitar gets a good workout on the instrumental "Ben Wilson Shuffle," which takes the listener back to the old Ike Turner sessions at the nearby Sun studio. There are also strong covers of blues standards like "I'm Tore Down," "Mannish Boy," "Let Me Play With Your Poodle," and "Gambler's Blues." Listening to Hard Hitting Blues From Memphis will give you the feeling that you're in a Memphis neighborhood bar ... just add a lot of cigarette smoke, pop the top on a quart bottle of malt liquor, and you're there.
I've been following the careers of Cephas & Wiggins since they both played in the band of Big Chief Ellis in the late 1970s. Since then they've matured into a modern-day Terry and McGhee, quite simply the best acoustic blues duo of the last 20 years. From Richmond to Atlanta (Bullseye Blues Classics) re-issues a dozen cuts from three albums from the now defunct Flying Fish label, released from 1984 through 1992. Many of the Cephas & Wiggins favorites from over the years are here, including "Dog Days of August," "Roberta," "Cherryball," "Black Cat on the Line," and "Richmond Blues." Between Cephas' charcoal rich voice and Piedmont-style fingerpickin' guitar and Wiggins' staccato harmonica fills, it's always fun to listen to these guys. If you don't have the original recordings, then this compilation is a must for acoustic music buffs.
Mr. Downchild is a Cleveland musician, originally from England, who in the past has recorded with the legendary Robert Jr. Lockwood. Behind The Sun (Mascita Music) instead presents him in a solo format, playing both harmonica, electric and acoustic guitar, and percussion, the latter sounding like a tambourine attached to his foot. The album starts out strongly, with Mr. Downchild playing mean harp on the boogie tune "Angel On My Shoulder." Mr. D then switches to the acoustic guitar for the pleasant country blues song "Take Me Back To Mississippi" ... he does some fine guitar pickin' here and his slightly rough voice is well-suited for this type of material. "Travelin' Man" is another strong original composition about his travels on the trains around England and France; here he plays electric with a deep, resonant tone. Mr. Downchild switches to the national resonator guitar for a very nice Delta-style instrumental, "On My Way Back Home." He gives the same guitar sound to the haunting "Mississippi Blues," which sounds like it could have come from the Muddy Waters songbook. I should also note that all 11 songs on the CD are Mr. Downchild originals. Behind The Sun becomes more infectious each time you listen to it. It's worth the search to find a copy.
It was a live Norton Buffalo concert in 1978 that inspired me to buy my first harmonica soon thereafter. My utter lack of musical skills kept me from learning to play anything other than a few bars of "Oh Shenandoah." But since then I've always fondly remembered that particular concert, as well as the two great solo albums released by Buffalo during the same time period. King of the Highway (Blind Pig) is, remarkably, Buffalo's first solo release in over 20 years. He did a few albums with guitarist Roy Rogers (no, not the singing cowboy), and spent a lot of years touring with the Steve Miller Band. But the legion of Norton Buffalo fans have waited a long time for this new material ... and they won't be disappointed. It's not all blues, as Buffalo has never been considered a blues dude, but there's a healthier dose of blues material than on his late-70s albums. The disc starts off with "Is It Love," an original funky blues number which owes more than just a nod to Junior Wells. There are few harp players who play the chromatic as well as Buffalo, and he's at his best on the snaky blues of "Hoodoo Roux." Steve Miller takes the guitar solos on the swinging instrumental "Sweet Little Pumpkin," and Elvin Bishop and Merl Saunders make guest appearances on another swing tune, "She's Drivin' Me Crazy." The only cover on the CD is also one of the best songs, as Buffalo turns in a great version of Freddy King's "I'm Tore Down." This tune is normally a guitar showcase, but Buffalo turns it into an exercise in harmonica gymnastics. I give it a perfect 10. It's good to have Norton Buffalo back in the saddle again. Let's hope he doesn't wait another 20 years for his next solo release. NOTE: For more Norton Buffalo, check out the CD re-issue containing both of his classic albums from the 1970s.
Just sneaking in on the deadline for the holiday season comes a four-song Christmas disc from Atlanta-based singer Francine Reed. Here Comes Frani Claus (CMO Records) contains versions of "Christmas Day," "Go Tell It On The Mountain," "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," and the appetizing "Grandma's Cookin' Christmas." I get a little traditional at this time of year, so the middle two cuts are my favorites. This CD is good enough to be in the rotation on Christmas morning around my house.
--- Bill Mitchell
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Revised: December 10, 2000 - Version 1.00
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