Chess Records Blues Reissues
Jack Frost's nibbling will be nearing an end by the time most of you read this, but right now I'm still feasting on Christmas presents. That new Road Glide didn't show up in my driveway but I did get a few treats for the road, none of which consist of chrome. So lo and behold, this month's reviews are devoted entirely to some stocking stuffers courtesy of Universal, the company that's the keeper of the Chess Records flame. Way back in the '40s and '50s, blues musicians from all parts of the south migrated to Chicago. Many came up from the Delta and travelled through Memphis, making that city another music Mecca. Forget that sophomoric Hollywood-stylized Blues Brothers crap-I'm talking about real bluesmen. I keep hoping that some old photo of Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf astride a Harley Flathead might turn up, just to prove the blues and motorcycles were a match made in heaven. Think of the nomadic early blues musicians who left home in search of...well, something. Sounds like a great premise for a biker movie, eh? If nothing else, it proves that much of the blues is born of that same wanderlust that motivates us to throw a leg over the saddle and head out on the highway. I don't know if Muddy and the Wolf ever rode bikes, but somewhere up in heaven they surely must be cruising around on them now...
Wheels represent ratings from 1 to 5 (best).
The harmonica is an instrument that easily conjures up images of the road. It can transform into the lonesome wail of a train, or especially to the readers of this magazine, morph into the rhythm of a V-twin engine under full throttle. In the hands of a practitioner like Little Walter, it's an instrument that defines what the blues is all about.
A native of Louisiana, Little Walter was a rabble-rousing teenager who showed great promise as an up-and-coming blues guitarist. Hanging with contemporaries like Sonny Boy Williamson and Honeyboy Edwards will buy you some serious street cred, especially in Chicago where Little Walter eventually ended up. Little Walter practically invented the manner in which he would cup his hands and simultaneously hold a microphone and his harmonica, enabling him to compete against the volume of electric guitars. From then on, Little Walter became the official king of the blues harp. His 1964 tour with the Rolling Stones was just another step in the right direction. The songs on this album are so revered it's become de rigueur study for any aspiring blues musician. Little Walter was posthumously inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and it's been widely acknowledged that he did for the harmonica what Jimi Hendrix did for the Stratocaster.
Released as a 12-track album in 1958, it was re-released and re-mastered in 1997, adding an additional eight tracks. For blues-loving bikers, it's as indispensible as oil.
Album of the Month
While many of Buddy Guy's fans are familiar with his newer recordings done for a variety of labels, it's his Chess Records' tracks that illustrate why he, along with BB King, have become living blues royalty. Buddy's Blues is an awesome 15-track collection culled from the multi-disc (and decidedly un-saddlebag-friendly) The Complete Chess Studio Collection box set.
This CD is a generous helping of all meat, such as "The First Time I Met the Blues," Buddy Guy's first big hit for Chess which has become a classic blues standard and longtime staple of his live performances. There's plenty of Buddy's smokin' fret work on display in "Stone Crazy," "Let Me Love You Baby" (one of four songs on this album penned by the great Willie Dixon), "Ten Years Ago" (featuring Junior Wells on harp), "Leave My Girl Alone" (a favorite of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan), and other gems.
Evolution is something that happens over time and this CD is a great way to get some historical perspective on the manner in which Buddy developed into a premiere blues artist. And if you're lucky enough to have seen Buddy perform lately, then you know he just keeps getting better as the miles pile up.
The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues
Last month we delved into the most excellent Howlin' Wolf Moanin' in the Moonlight reissue which combined two of the Wolfman's early Chess Records LPs onto one CD. This album follows the same format, and combines The Real Folk Blues and More Real Folks Blues. In this case, the original two albums were compilations of previous assorted Howlin' Wolf singles and gives the listener an even broader glimpse of Wolf's Chess recordings. The '60s was a period of folk music popularity, and the folks at Chess put their marketing hats on to capitalize on the trend. Yep, now we get Glee. Back then you got Howlin' Wolf. Go figure.
Listen to the track "Killing Floor" and it becomes evident this is where Led Zep found inspiration. Listening to the music on this disc leads one to easily connect the dots to a whole slew of early British rock bands, from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers to the Stones. Every track is absolutely stunning. Put it on, crank it up, and you'll be treated to an electrifying experience. "Poor Boy," "Louise," "Sittin' On Top of the World," and a song that could've been written as inspiration for baggers: "Built For Comfort."
Thankfully, the original liner notes, penned by Willie Dixon, are included and perfectly sums up the blues: "No one can dream up the blues, nor can you get the blues when you want them, unless you have a personal reason involved that can create the mood or feeling that makes the blues. One day a man can have the blues because his wife or girlfriend left him, and the next day he can have the blues because she came back." Coming from Willie Dixon, we'll take him at his word.
Gold Bo Diddley
Without Bo Diddley, rock 'n' roll might never have been invented. Certainly, artists like George Thorogood, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, and many more would have had a much smaller repertoire of songs.
Born Otha Elias Bates in McComb, Mississippi, on December 30, 1928, Bo Diddley also had to travel to Chicago to perfect his art. Signed to Chess' subsidiary label, Checker, Muddy Waters happened by one day and heard Bo's "I'm A Man" and immediately claimed it for his own recording session (Muddy's version was titled "Mannish Boy").
Bo's first hit was a two-headed monster: "Bo Diddley" backed with "I'm A Man" became one of Chess' fastest selling singles. Soon Bo was booked on the Ed Sullivan Show. For some reason, Ed wanted him to sing "Sixteen Tons," the Tennessee Ernie Ford hit. But when Bo took the stage, he performed "Bo Diddley," and after that was promptly rewarded with a lifetime ban from the show. No matter. While Bo never had another hit that eclipsed his first, his stature as one of rock's earliest founding fathers was firmly established.
Listening to Diddley's version of "I'm A Man" reveals how close Mick Jagger came to reinventing himself as a black man. And Bo's band, with Willie Dixon on bass, Otis Spann on piano, Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica, Jerome Green on maracas, and Clifton James holding down drum duties, was one of the earliest superstar groups. All of the songs on this double disc set, "Little Girl," "She's Fine, She's Mine," "Who Do You Love," "I'm Bad," and others prove how so many rock bands made a living imitating Bo Diddley. Unfortunately Bo is no longer with us, but he thankfully left behind these immense treasures to keep us rockin' many years on.