Building a Blues Library, Part 2 of 3: Urban Blues

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Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues,” in a 1920s publicity shot.

By Bradley Bambarger <2007>

Were we able to walk into a 1920s plantation juke-joint or even a South Side Chicago club in the late ’40s, it would feel so alien in some ways that it might as well be another planet. But the music — the blues — would sound familiar. The blues genre is the common gene that now binds most American popular music, from jazz and soul to rock and hip-hop.

The blues were heard in New Orleans and New York not long after they were born in the dying echoes of the 19th century. But when millions of African-Americans migrated from the rural South to the industrial North after World War II, the blues could be heard in urban areas like never before. The musicians thrived as workers wanted a taste of down-home after they clocked off. Their music soon matched the sound of the city, developing faster rhythms, hip phrases and electric volume.

The first entry in this series on building a library of blues recordings surveyed the great country bluesmen. A later installment will survey artists who have kept the blues flame burning since the advent of rock’n’roll. Here, though, the spotlight is on 10 artists who exemplify the urban strain of the blues, from Bessie Smith and Lonnie Johnson to Etta James and B.B. King. These recordings, made from 1920s New York and ’40s Detroit to ’50s Houston and ’60s Chicago, spurred cultural sea changes. There are gutbucket blues, jazzy blues, after-hours blues and blues as hard as any rock. Yet it all moves and excites, like the best, most timeless art.

Bessie Smith: The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia/Legacy)

The first hit blues records weren’t by country bluesmen but by women brought up on the vaudeville theater circuit. They were bawdy, brassy and could belt out a tune to the back of a hall without a microphone — the likes of Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan and Bessie Smith, “Empress of the Blues.” Raised in a Chattanooga, Tenn., ghetto, Smith would come to embody a new model of proud black woman; her artistic pride, deep feeling and cello-like phrasing inspired such spiritual daughters as Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. The Empress died in 1937 at age 43, in a Clarksdale, Miss., “colored” hospital after a car accident. Beautifully remastered from original sources, this two-CD, 36-track set includes the ageless “ ‘Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “St. Louis Blues” (with Louis Armstrong’s sublime obbligato) and her own “Backwater Blues.” Before the LP reissue era, Smith’s blues made a far bigger impact than Robert Johnson’s.

Lonnie Johnson: The Original Guitar Wizard (Proper)

The first guitar hero was New Orleans-born Lonnie Johnson (1899–1970). Bred into the blues, he was also a sophisticated virtuoso who pioneered the single-string solos that led to jazzers Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, as well as bluesmen T-Bone Walker and B.B. King. Johnson backed top singers and sat in with Duke Ellington, not to mention making solo discs showcasing his mellow tenor voice. Sidelined by rock’n’roll, he would enjoy an Indian summer recording for Prestige in the ’60s. But this bargain-priced four-CD boxed set covers his prime decades before that, including prized duets with Louis Armstrong and diva Victoria Spivey. Highlights include Johnson’s hilariously cautionary blues “She’s Making Whoopee in Hell Tonight” (from 1930) and the mellifluous pop ballad “Tomorrow Night” (1948), one of Bob Dylan’s favorite tunes.

Muddy Waters: The Anthology (Chess/Universal)

There is no more essential blues artist than McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters (1915–83). Steeped in the acoustic, rural roots of the blues on the Stovall plantation in the Mississippi Delta, he migrated north and created a future for the music by pioneering the proto-rock’n’roll roar of the electric Chicago style. Waters’ work helped establish the most vital blues record label, Chess, in a decades-long symbiosis with its Jewish owners. And, like Miles Davis in jazz, his band was a proving station for the genre’s top players — Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, James Cotton. One could base a Muddy Waters collection on 1992’s richly annotated three-CD Chess Box. But the sound of this two-disc, 50-song anthology from 2001 improves on the boxed set, and it includes his most iconic tracks — from 1947’s “Gypsy Woman” to 1972’s “Can’t Get No Grindin’,” with “Hootchie Cootchie Man” and the prescient “Rollin’ Stone” in between. If one were to buy only one blues album, this should be it.

Otis Spann: Good Morning, Mr. Blues (Storyville/APO)

One of the greatest blues pianists, Otis Spann wasn’t only Muddy Waters’ right-hand man. He was a stylish singer on his own, mixing deep-soul phrasing with a low-key, tipsy charm. Spann, who moved to Chicago from his native Mississippi like so many bluesmen, recorded surprisingly often in the ’60s, sometimes in ad-hoc sessions on the road with the Waters band. Good Morning, Mr. Blues is one of his best albums, taped solo in Denmark and reissued in 2000 by the audiophile APO label. Spann personalizes age-old blues tunes (“Going Down Slow,” “Worried Life Blues”) and rolls through a few of his own, all in relaxed mood. Spann died in 1970, only 40 years old. Worth searching out, this hard-to-find disc is a holy grail of quiet, twilight blues.

John Lee Hooker: Hooker (Shout Factory)

John Lee Hooker (1917–2001) had an epic career, from playing fish fries in the Delta and rocking Southern migrants in Detroit to touring as a living legend from his comfortable California home. Hooker’s elemental style harked back to Africa with its circular, droning rhythms, but he was such a totemic figure that Malian guitar griot Ali Farka Touré was influenced by him. This immaculately produced four-CD boxed set is the ultimate Hooker experience — electric boogie, solo acoustic, live rarities, starry duets. The highlights range from his formative 1948 hit “Boogie Chillen” and a live take on his proto-gangsta “I’m Bad Like Jesse James” to an eerie latter-day “Tupelo” and compelling duets with Bonnie Raitt (“In the Mood”) and Robert Cray (“Baby Lee”). For Hooker, the blues had a happy ending.

Howlin’ Wolf: The Chess Box (Chess/Universal)

Chester Burnett, a/k/a Howlin’ Wolf (1910–76), was Muddy Waters’ great peer and Chicago rival, a bear of a man from the Delta — with size-16 feet and a voice like a sequoia. His lupine yodel — influenced equally by early Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson and country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers — haunts like little else in music. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who made the Wolf’s first recordings, described his voice as the place “where the soul of man never dies.” This three-CD boxed set is the definitive statement on the Wolf, with great sound, a first-class booklet and music impossible to find anywhere else. All the electric classics are here: “Moanin’ at Midnight,” “Killing Floor,” “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” “Little Red Rooster.” There’s also the Wolf’s chilling disaster tale “The Natchez Burning,” plus ultra-rare acoustic performances and fascinating spoken-word interludes. Two volumes of “His Best” are available from Chess, but they’re not nearly as much fun.

Elmore James: The Very Best of Elmore James (Rhino)

The most influential blues guitarist on rock’n’roll, Elmore James had a slashing yet poetic bottleneck-slide sound that moved players from Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix to Duane Allman and Jack White. Although he died in his native Mississippi in 1963 of heart disease at just 45, James recorded for many labels in a peripatetic career, waxing multiple versions of such signature numbers as his Robert Johnson rewrite “Dust My Broom.” This sonically superior 16-cut anthology makes handy sense of his far-flung discography, drawing from sessions for the Trumpet, Fire, Chief and Chess labels. Such juke-joint classics as “Shake Your Moneymaker” are here, but it’s “The Sky Is Crying” and “It Hurts Me, Too” that sear the soul, with James’ gritty voice as powerful as his guitar.

Etta James: Etta James Rocks the House (Chess/MCA)

This album’s title is an example of truth in advertising. Etta James — born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938 — was taped rocking a Nashville club to its foundations in 1963. There are no dramatic, string-laden ballads like her earlier hit “At Last,” just down-and-dirty live blues, with James sounding every bit like the church-girl-gone-bad (a vocal and behavioral example that Janis Joplin took to heart). James wails through her gospel-charged “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” and her version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” out-sasses the original — to the audience’s vocal delight. Even better is her demolition of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” where she imitates a long harmonica solo with a growl so erotic that it should carry a warning for the faint of heart. A more low-key James is still at it, releasing the rustic Blues to the Bone in 2004.

Bobby “Blue” Bland: I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, Vol. I (Duke/MCA)

The smoothest crooner in the blues, Bobby “Blue” Bland was born in 1930, coming up in Memphis under older pal B.B. King. Despite many R&B hits in the ’50s and ’60s, Bland kept mostly to the Southern “chitlin” circuit, never crossing over with the white pop audience like King. The singer’s early recordings, though, are seminal examples of blues as sexy soul music, his Beale Street roots mixing with the Duke label’s snazzier Houston sound. Bland’s Duke output has been revisited in three anthologies. The first, double-disc set includes the hard-driving classic “Farther Up the Road” and gospel-infused shouter “I Pity the Fool,” as well as one of the spookiest romantic devotionals ever — “I’ll Take Care of You,” all rain-drop piano, windswept organ and a voice like the ghost of a heartbroken man.

B.B. King: How Blue Can You Get — Classic Live Recordings, 1964–94 (MCA/Universal)

Born in 1925 in Indianola, Miss., Riley King has traveled far from Beale Street in Memphis where he made his name as “B.B.” (blues boy). He has long been the globe-trotting ambassador of the blues — a living tie to the urbane guitar of Lonnie Johnson and good-time “jump blues” of Louis Jordan, as well as the deep Delta tradition. King has been inconsistent in the studio, but this three-decade, double-CD set showcases him playing live in his prime. On “How Blue Can You Get,” King’s single-string solos have a majestic sting, while his vocals seem bound to burst his chest. He can be sexy, too, teasing his female fans in “Sweet Little Angel.” And King transforms the song written for him by U2, “When Love Comes to Town,” into a party stomp that would’ve made Jordan snap his fingers. For those preferring a studio disc, King’s 2000 collaboration with Eric Clapton, Riding with the King, is top class. But even that’s trumped by his spare, slow-burning 1961 Crown LP, My Kind of Blues.

Further listening: Aleck “Rice” Miller, with an eye to the market, assumed Sonny Boy Williamson’s name after the original hit-maker’s early death; his freight-train harmonica and devilish songwriting yielded some of the most covered blues tunes, including “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’ ”(His Best, Chess). Although Chicago’s Otis Rush has never fully capitalized on his talent, blues fans relish his lonely cry of a voice and waspish guitar in such deathless tracks as “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” (The Classic Cobra Recordings, Varese Sarabande). And unlike his old Delta mentor Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines lived to channel his rough-hewn guitar and vibrating voice into electric grooves. Johnny Shines with Big Walter Horton (Testament) finds Shine and harmonica ace Horton going wild.

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Howlin’ Wolf.

(Originally published in 2007 as a part two of a three-part series in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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