From the mid-1950s into the '60s, Muddy Waters's Chess singles and "hits" kept a-comin' – not big-money chart numbers, but releases gaining national and international acclaim – and he settled comfortably into the role of master blues entertainer, purveying up-tempo arrangements, lyrics of innuendo (sly and not so), gruffer vocals, and less and less of his own slide guitar. (In fact the Chess Blues Box makes a point of his "vocals only" for half of the 72 chosen tracks.) So his Noah-count single "Forty Days and Forty Nights" will have to stand in for dozens of other candidate numbers. It's still Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers behind him, but could as well be James Cotton or Walter Horton, Pat Hare or Luther Tucker, or the scores of tunes blessed with Otis Spann rocking the piano. Muddy's shouted vocals seem the exalted epitome of his style of blues declaiming, and the band just keeps thrusting straight on: no muss, no fuss, don't go no further; the real thing is right here.
You might say that for Muddy Waters 1954 came in with a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, as bassist Willie Dixon and great blues pianist Otis Spann joined the team. Spann, sometimes identified as Muddy's "cousin" and certainly his musical doppelganger, brought new sophistication to the arrangements or at least the piano parts, and Dixon slathered a potent, inventive sexuality onto music and lyrics – "I'm Ready
," "I Just Want to Make Love to You
" and this Coochie classic all recorded in the first few months alone. (Muddy too was juiced, cribbing and fiddling "Mannish Boy
" away from Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man
" original.) Plus two solid years more of the best of Little Walter's jazz-influenced chromatic harp, up in the mix and heard to powerful effect on every recording. No wonder everybody knew Muddy was here!
At the session that produced "Honey Bee
," Muddy Waters also cut this gently rocking ballad, its slightly stately pace perhaps suggesting the central role he was already occupying in the new electrified genre – mentoring his sidemen, hosting new arrivals to town, becoming the genial godfather of Chicago Blues. Over the next couple of years, Big Crawford would be ousted by bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, simplistic drummer Elgin Evans would yield to Francis Clay, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter would become solidly present on all tracks. But for this quiet gem, and "Still a Fool
" (Muddy's version of the traditional "Two Trains Running"), plus a few other tracks still ahead, the session crew was kept small and tight, and the Delta was still only two trains or a long distance call away.
Little Walter's distinctive and soon-to-be prominent harp work was introduced on this October 1950 session, providing mellow backup for Muddy Waters's lazy, loping beat during the initial verses of "Louisiana Blues," the first of Muddy's major mojo-magical songs, with the familiar lyric "I'm goin' down in New Orleans, get me a mojo hand." (Those ju-ju devices figure most prominently in the near-theme song hit "Got My Mojo Working
," and there's some voodoo happening in "Hoochie Coochie Man
" too.) But what starts out melodically and a bit sleepily soon takes on a slightly greater urgency as both harp and guitar seem to speed up a fraction and gain some in volume. (This eventually became a favorite track – and arrangement trick – for some British blues bands.)
December 24, 2008 · 1 comment
By late 1950, producer Leonard Chess was finally admitting that the 1940s amplified duets approach had run its course, and that Muddy Waters's reputation as a bandleader had spread far enough to merit bigger session arrangements, starting with the addition of Little Walter or Jimmy Rogers fairly regularly (and gradually others). Chess himself played bang-along bass drum on the three-man thudder "She Moves Me
," but this other, more intriguing trio puts Little Walter on guitar (a man of many parts!), his picking style ringing out in contrast to the slap-strings lead of Muddy. In the booklet accompanying the Chess Muddy Waters box, musician/critic Robert Palmer writes knowledgeably of microtonal sounds and black-keys-on-the-piano sources, but I just shrug and say, "Sail on, my little honey bee, sail on!"
"Rollin' Stone" puts us waist-deep in the Big/Muddy duet that entered the DNA of more rockers and bluesers than any other Muddy Waters track, truly his defining moment, the potent frontdoor-man bragfest. A sterling stop-time de-rangement launches this upscale version of the familiar Delta standard known as "Catfish Blues
"; then it's power strums and tolling bells, and Muddy's mama predicting: "Got a boy child comin' gonna be a son-of-a-gun," and "a rolling stone" to boot. And the music world was never the same again!
This particular duel broke the mold with a fast, chugging-and-churning beat and a chanted, moaning-and-groaning vocal – "Whiskey and women would not let me pray!" – so compelling it was allowed to take up both sides of the disc. But, in fact, Muddy had already anchored a faster, louder, more inchoate version recorded for tiny label Parkway, with Leroy Foster on guitar and lead vocals, and harp master Little Walter. Foster's track
is a primitive early landmark of Chicago Blues, Waters's cover merely manic – but Mannish Boy proof that he could pretty much do it all by himself if he had to!
Although Muddy Waters had his own amplified band of four or five (usually including Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica) playing Chicago's South Side clubs from 1947 onward, producer Leonard Chess was reluctant to mess with success, so he kept Muddy recording "Big" bass-ic duets for the next two years (aside from a couple of sop-to-the-guitarist sessions where Muddy was allowed to add Leroy Foster or Jimmy Rogers on second guitar). Alongside "Down South Blues
," "Kind Hearted Woman
," "Little Geneva
" and a dozen more, the most radical duet cut was "Burying Ground" as Waters applied everything in his guit-arsenal, digging in, reaching for that bigger blues band sound – forceful picking, his loosened, snarling strings riding roughshod over the bass and battling his own vocals to a draw.
Muddy Waters moved to Chicago in the mid-'40s and quickly cut a few forgettable tracks for Columbia, but it took the intercession of Sunnyland Slim and the unlikely interest of Leonard Chess at new independent label Aristocrat to launch greatness, as Waters was given the green light to play several Delta numbers on electric guitar, usually on what became his beloved red Telecaster, and with his bottleneck slide, and with solid driving bass by "Big" Crawford (the unsung hero of Muddy's early tracks). The 78-rpm release of rocking, rhythmic "I Can't Be Satisfied" – bulked up and with more bounce to the ounce – coupled with the slower, sadder "I Feel Like Going Home
" sold out in a single afternoon, and a blues legend was born. As Muddy sang it, "Baby, I cain't never be satisfied," and one suspects The Rolling Stones
took a hint from this track too.
One might glibly say that Chicago Blues starts here. There were many Down South musicians recording in the Windy City ahead of Muddy Waters (in the 1930s and early '40s), yet this track – his 1941 debut on disc, cut while still in Mississippi, for Library of Congress field folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work – in retrospect announced the arrival of something new, maybe an insouciant, jaunty, sprung-rhythm approach to the rural blues (here applied to the Son House/Robert Johnson number "Walkin' Blues"). At any rate, Lomax lucked onto the perfect Delta descendent with 26-year-old Morganfield, whose first track transmits House
precisely (he'd observed or heard both), and the accompanying interview confirms it: Son was his unmatchable mentor, and Robert's aggressive guitar and high vocal tones clearly the better fit.
This lady has one of the finest blues voices around today. There are bits of Motown and rock here, hints of Aretha or Janis, but the end result is Janiva, a sultry blues diva with a bad attitude. This song floats over a salacious 6/8 that gradually builds in intensity, with Zack Zunis's guitar propositioning our lead singer at every opportunity. But sorry my friend, you are "one heartache too late" on this occasion. This song could be a radio hit, at least it could have been back in the days before the music died. Nowadays you need to sniff out the best songs by yourself. But this one is worth tracking down.
December 24, 2008 · 1 comment
James "T-Model" Ford is not quite as old as the Ford Model T
… but almost. When he was born, probably in 1924 (he's not really sure), those Tin Lizzies were still coming off the assembly line. But blues singer Ford has picked up even more mileage, and considerably more wear and tear, than any machine on four wheels you've ever seen. Matthew Johnson once asked Ford how many times he'd been to jail. "He seemed to think it was a trick question," Johnson recalls, "Upon realizing it wasn't, he answered to the best of his ability: 'Every Saturday night there for awhile.'"
Fortunately for blues fans, and maybe even more happily for Saturday night strollers in the state of Mississippi, T-Model Ford now works out his aggression on his guitar. No matter that he didn't start playing until he was (more or less) 58, Ford sounds like he was made to perform this music. This track, recorded for the documentary M for Mississippi
, shows him off in all his raw and raucous splendor. The lyrics may be hand-me-downs, the guitar chords throbbing like a demon locked in your neighbor's garage, but the edginess in this music is infectious. Some things get mellower with age, and then there is T-Model Ford, who's been operating for many years now with nary an oil change. Check him out, but keep a distance of at least two car lengths from the bandstand.
Billy Boy Arnold has called it "the most important day in my entire life." Over 60 years ago, after leaving a movie matinee, he treks from his home on the South Side of Chicago to 3226 Giles Street, and knocks on the door of blues harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson. Williamson would soon be dead, a victim of a mugging at age 34 in 1948, and had his posthumous reputation confused by a usurper who took his name; but on that day he generously spent time with the visiting youngster, demonstrating his harmonica effects and how he made his humble mouth organ say wah, wah, wah
Decades have passed and now Billy Boy Arnold returns the favor on a CD devoted to songs by Sonny Boy Williamson. Here he takes the melancholy "Decoration Day," and turns it from doleful to soulful with lots of wah, wah, wah
along the way. Sonny Boy's nice and kind woman "died and left him," and he needs to fulfill his promise to bring her some flowers on every Decoration Day. Hey kitties, you know it's a heavy dues song when it opens at the side of a deathbed and goes downhill from there
. But Billy Boy translates his mourning into some serious wailing on the harmonica, and the whole band is magical throughout this track. There are so many tribute albums floating around these days, and most of them come across as contrived and shallow. But Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy
is the real deal, one master celebrating the artistry of another with unfeigned passion. A real treat for blues fans.
Who is Motu? is he an ex pat from the island of Moti
? Is he an unfortunate Mugu
? Is he related to Mongo (of Candygram fame
)? Ah, none of these. Motu is the nom de axe
of Dr. Richard Michelson, a formidable blues guitarist and very raw singer. Motu is joined here by his accompanists in musical malfeasance, the RoadHouse Jesters, and they deliver a hot and bothered 12-minute performance on "Here Come Those Blues Again." The track starts with some free-floating atmospherics, a guitar lightning storm crackling on the horizon; but soon settles into a very danceable "Spirit in the Sky" groove. How nice to hear vocal harmonies on a blues track (albeit one that, despite the song's name, never really settles into the familiar blues pattern). But this band ain't the Four Freshmen, and those who want spit and polish in their music need to check out another CD. If you subjected Dr. Michelson's vocal cords to otolaryngological analysis they would rate a FEPA grit designation
no higher than 50. In layman's terms, we are talking some serious blues.
December 19, 2008 · 1 comment
How many bands have taken their names from Muddy Waters's songs? A young David Bowie played in another group called the Mannish Boys, and we have also seen the Mojos, the Hoochie Coochie Men and (of course) the Rolling Stones. But this ensemble, with shifting personnel for their four CDs, is no unworthy pretender to the throne. Their hybrid of high-energy blues with a dose of rock definitely has some serious mojo of its own, and is perfectly crafted for crossover appeal. "Searchin' Blues" builds off one of the oldest slide-guitar vamps in the blues lexicon, but "Paris Slim" plays it as if newly minted; and "Big Foot" Innes contributes a very danceable beat. Mannish Boys may have started life as a one-shot studio project, but these Boys have coalesced into one of the finer blues bands on the scene. Let's hope they keep going, and continue releasing CDs this good when they grow up to be boyish men.
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