Friday, July 31, 2009

A Few Contemporary Guitar Wizards

Most that read this blog by now realize I enjoy roots guitarists and the multiple genres they work in. Although most of my interest focuses on players who are no longer with us, I can't help but take notice of some of the incredibly gifted guitarists who seem to consistently stretch the boundaries of possibility on this incredible instrument. Since any choices I include here will reflect either my own bias or ignorance of more gifted players, please don't take offense if one of your favorites has been excluded. Rather, take the opportunity to comment and share your knowledge or perspective with all the readers. Also note that my choice of categories is also somewhat arbitrary, but they do conform to the parameters of "roots music" in a broad sense. I have also included "country" as a category in part because there are some gifted and fascinating players.

Jazz: There are a few patriarchs still alive today: the legendary Les Paul who still plays at the Iridium every other week or so, Joe Pass, also a consummate player, and a score of up and coming younger players like James Muller, the incredible Mimi Fox, and the sublime work of John Stowell. For my money, there is nobody playing today that has anything on Scotty Anderson, a fierce talent who combines elements of western swing and jazz with a vicious right hand and five fingered right hand approach. Scotty is simply an unbelievable player. Check out his chops on "It Don't Mean a Thing" in tandem with Bob Saxton. In a more traditional jazz setting, listen to Scotty on "Taking the A Train." Superb.

Electric Blues: There are really a lot of excellent players in this genre, including the patriarchs Buddy Guy and Johnny Winter. Some of the "younger players" are veritable forces in their own right, including Junior Watson, Ronnie Baker Brooks , Jimmy Thackery and Duke Robillard. The youngest is Danny Gatton disciple Joe Bonamassa, a tenacious and upcoming talent. Incredible player.

Acoustic Blues: This one is difficult and my bias is bound to show. I do think John Miller's knowledge and execution of the diversity in country blues is unmatched. Listen to John teach Bo Carter's "My Babe" here. That said, I think Kelly Joe Phelps plays flawlessly with a hell of a lot of soul. Check out his "Window Grin."

Acoustic: Tommy Emanuel doing "Guitar Boogie." What more can I say about this?

Country: Some of the very finest country guitar is being played today as players are drawing from jazz and country swing to expand the boundaries of the genre. The patriarch here might be Albert Lee, followed by Redd Volkaert, known for his association with Merle Haggard. Of the younger players, Johnny Hiland is outstanding as is the popular Brad Paisley, featured here with a constellation of country players on "Cluster Pluck." I do think that consummate Nashville player today is Brent Mason; those inclined to disagree please to comment. An up and coming force in Nashville is the multi-talented Guthrie Trapp, heard here on electric lead. Amazing chops.

Rockabilly:Undoubtedly, primarily for being one of the founders of the genre, James Burton is the patriarch here. Among the younger players, the talented Brian Setzer has received the most notoriety, but Jinx Jones - here, and Pete Gorilla heard here are genuine talents, as is the incredible Cousin Harley performing live here doing an amazing cover of Western Swing legend Billy Jack Wills' "Feelin Bad."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Low Down R&B Instrumentals

The big bands that fronted Jump Blues artists like Lucky Millinder, Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris set the table for the later emergence of rock n' roll combos, jazz as a genre also laid the groundwork for the R&B instrumental that became quite popular in the 1950's. Some of instrumentals that peppered the R&B charts throughout the decade featured some excellent musicians, some of whom worked as session players for other groups. The convergence of genres and attempts at "crossing over" coupled with the fact many players were able to move with fluidity between jazz, blues, R&B and pop related material made for a fascinating mix.

Here I have compiled a few of my favorite instrumentals from the decade that represent the rather broad range of styles that were charting in R&B. The "low down" funkiness of some of these recordings speaks to the hybridity of musical exchanges at the time. Enjoy, and thanks again to all the collectors on youtube.

Tiny Bradshaw: "Soft" is a 1953 classic by the master Bradshaw, a big band arrangement that opens the way for the smaller combo R&B preferences that followed. Charted on R&B.

Sonny Thompson: "Mellow Blues" from 1951 is a deliberate arrangement that features some outstanding R&B sax work from Eddie Chamblee. Sonny's small combo is the prototype for the R&B groups that followed.

Lloyd Glenn: West Coast blues piano ace Glenn showcases his talent on the early 1950's recording "Southbound Special." Lloyd was an "instrumental" player in the Los Angeles blues scene, teaming up with west coast guitar greats T Bone Walker and Lowell Fulson on different recordings.

Lee Allen: "Walking with Mister Lee" from 1958 is a genuine rocker with great sax work by Lee whose career was resurrected during the second wave of rockabilly in the early 1980's, principally by Dave Alvin.

Hank Marr: "Tonk Game" on King Records is from 1961 and is one of my real favorites. Hank's organ skills never got the ink that Jimmy Smith's did but this song is about as dirty as R&B gets. Superb.

Jimmy Forrest: "Night Train" from 1951 charted high on the R&B lists even though Jimmy is really rooted in jazz. Very nice example of jazz merging with R&B in the early 1950s.

Ernie Freeman: Ernie's cover of this Bill Justis tune "Raunchy" was a commercial success that crossed over into the Billboard top ten about the time Bill Dogget's "Honky Tonk" did. Nice sound, nice guitar work, the sax is under-miked it would seem.

Bill Doggett: "Hold It" is classic R&B with great musicians, I assume it's the same aggregation that played on his 1956 crossover hit "Honky Tonk," a tune that was discussed in one of the early posts on this blog. "Hold It" is a tune many musicians might have used before the break of a set. At any rate, it's some pretty nasty R&B.

Wild Jimmy Spruill:
"Kansas City March" by consummate session guitarist Spruill is top notch guitar based R&B. Spruill played with a host of talented players, including The Shirelles, King Curtis and with Bobby Lewis on the 1961 hit "Tossin and Turnin."

Tab Smith: "Mr Gee" is a jazzier rendition of a straight blues that features Tab's velvety smooth alto playing. Exceptionally tight arrangement.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Benefit Concert for Billy Lee Riley

Arkansas rockabilly legend and Sun recording star Billy Lee Riley is currently receiving treatment for cancer and is not in good shape. Several of Billy Lee's friends from Arkansas and beyond are organizing a benefit concert to raise money for him. This concert is scheduled to take place in Newport, Arkansas at the historic Silver Moon dance hall and will commence at 1:00 p.m. The final list of musicians scheduled to perform has not been set, but sources have informed me that Sonny Burgess and the Pacers will headline. Other musicians who plan to participate are Arkansas' own Larry Donn, saxophone legend Ace Cannon and W. S. Holland of Johnny Cash's band. I will be providing more information on the lineup when I receive it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Texas Rockabilly II: Fifteen Forgotten Classics

A few months back when I posted on the evolution of Texas rockabilly, I realized the post would only scratch the surface of the Lone Star state' s recordings during the 1950's. Texas, along with Tennessee and Arkansas are the states where rockabilly flourished and virtually eclipsed country music for several years as the preferred style. In my previous Texas rockabilly post I touched on some of the more canonical artists from Texas: Ronnie Dawson, Johnny Carroll, Bob Luman, Lew Williams, Sonny Fisher and Sid King. This post will serve to extend on the previous one, some of the musicians are fairly well known and others obscure to say the least. A couple things strike me about these recordings: most are of very high quality and also demonstrate in some instance a distinctive Texas flavor, which may reflect a tension created by the regional pull of Texas swing (Spade Cooly, Hank Williams and Bob Wills) and the popularity of Buddy Holly - in contention with the surging popularity of the Sun sound, spearheaded by Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. There is a scarcity of information available for some of these musicians but fortunately youtube allows us all to appreciate these unique, historical recordings from the 1950's . Enjoy them, some are true gems.

Mac Curtis: Mac's 1956 recording "That Ain't Nothing but Right" is incredibly pure rockabilly. Excellent guitar and piano solos. Superb.

Gene Summers: Gene never had a national hit but was quite popular in the Dallas - Fort Worth area. "Nervous" is a unique in its pacing with superb vocals and guitar. Robert Gordon covered it some twenty years after its initial release.

Wally Deane: "Cool Cool Daddy" is another superb arrangement by Texas born Deane. Great piano solo here.

Buddy Knox: "Party Doll" was a huge hit for Buddy in 1956. . "My Baby's Gone" is the flip side and is also excellent.

Jimmy Dee: "Henrietta" has more of a Rock n' Roll feel to it but still can be classified as rockabilly. Very tight arrangement.

Link Davis: The incredible Link "Big Mamou" Davis of "Don't Bigshot Me" fame performs his wonderfully conceived "Sixteen Chicks," a tune later covered by Joe Clay.

Scotty Mckay: "Evening Time" is another classic tune which showcases the mix of emerging rock n' roll and rockabilly. Scotty later went on to play with Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.

Cecil Moore: A little more Bakersfield sound in this fabulous recording. Cecil is an absolutely master guitar player in this tune "Walking Fever." Unbelievably good.

Jerry Irby: "49 Women" is classic rockabilly with pedal steel, nifty guitar work and that Texas edge. Outstanding cut from Jerry, a New Braunfels native.

Billy Eldridge: I remember this one from the Imperial Rockabilly reissue from 1978. "Let's Go Baby" is echoed and has that classic 1958 sound. Nifty guitar work.

Ray Doggett: "Go Go Heart" from 1956 has very unique vocal arrangements and nice guitar work.

Dean Beard: Dean is one of the few Texans that recorded on Sun. "Rock Around the Town" has that Sun sound. Superb.

Milton Allen: "Don't Bug Me Baby" from 1957 is just pure, unadulterated, energetic rockabilly. Tremendous sound, nice guitar.

Sonny West: "Rock Ola Ruby" from 1956 embodies the "essence" of west Texas rockabilly.

Al Urban: "Won't Tell Your Name" from 1958 is another uniquely Texas arrangement with killer guitar and piano. Al just released a new album this year.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Soul Power: A Gem From Zaire 1974

While the 1970's bring back unsettling memories of dictatorship and conflict rooted in latent colonialism, the decade also produced remarkable films and some memorable concerts. Jeffrey Levi-Hinte's new documentary "Soul Power" offers a fascinating window into Afro American and Caribbean music as it was performed live in concert in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. Originally planned to coincide with the "Rumble in the Jungle," i.e. the world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman,- captured majestically in Leon Gast's remarkable 1996 documentary "When We Were Kings"- the concert actually preceded the title bout by several weeks due to Foreman's eye injury. The entire event now seems wholly improbable. Conceived and financed by Liberian seed money and staged with the authorization of the Zairean tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko, the concert featured top U.S. soul acts like James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers, the legendary Cuban salsa queen Celia Cruz, the incredible salsa aggregation The Fania All Stars with Cruz and Hector Lavoe, and American blues guitar king B.B. King. This unique and powerful documentary opened last week on the coasts. Unfortunately, I'll be waiting for it to come out on DVD.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Reverend's Disciples

Being a blind African American in the Jim Crow south must have intensified the challenges to survive with any measure of dignity. Interestingly, this very affliction, coupled with the historical moment, conjoined to give the country some of the most remarkable country blues recordings of the century. Even the most precursory list of blind blues musicians sounds like a a legendary roll call of American blues: Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller and South Carolina's own Reverend Gary Davis.

Of all the great Piedmont blues artists, none had as profound and direct an influence on the evolution of folk guitar as Reverend Gary Davis. After the rural blues recording industry began to decline and give way to R&B and urban blues ensembles after WW II, Davis moved to New York city. There he languished in obscurity until the American Folk music revival, spearheaded in large part by Pete Seeger, began to take notice of his endless repertoire of unique finger-picked arrangements, which ranged from ragtime and traditional country blues to ditties and military marches. Assisted by an appearance at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, the Reverend's presence in New York began to work to his advantage as Greenwich Village became one of the primary focal points for the folk music revival on the East Coast. While in the Village, Davis came into contact with numerous aspiring folk musicians, providing inspiration, lessons and guidance to a virtual generation of influential players. His influence was incredibly far reaching, inspiring musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Grateful Dead.

The Reverend: "Make Believe Stunt" showcases the Reverend's fluent ragtime style. A great example of the Reverend's religious work can be heard on "I Saw the Light," and "I am the Light," recorded in the 1930's. Incredible guitar work here. Also, check out this unique arrangement of the traditional song "Candyman." Below is a partial list of the many "disciples" of the Reverend, all of whom are still alive with the exception of Dave Van Ronk.

Woody Mann: In my estimation, the master pupil of the Reverend. Mann can play it all with incredible fluidity. His multiple skills are on full display on "Top Hat." Whether it's playing a Blind Blake or Davis rag or covering Bo Carter, Woody is an outstanding player all the way round. Also, check out the stylistics on "Lennie's Lament."

Stefan Grossman: Another disciple who has proven himself an outstanding player in country blues, ragtime and related genres. Co founded the roots music label Kicking Mule. Check out his approach on "Bermuda Triangle Exit."

Roy Bookbinder: Roy enjoys the comical side of playing but he was also one of the Reverend's star pupils, having been connected to him by Dave Van Ronk in the Village back in the early 1960's. Listen to Roy talk about his teacher and display his talent here.

Ry Cooder: Roots and World Music guru Cooder was directly influenced by the Reverend and took lessons from him at an early age. Since then, Ry has been a leader in championing the cause of roots music all over the globe. This is early Cooder when he was doing traditional blues.

Taj Mahal: New York born, Taj and Ry Cooder must have seen the Reverend many times in the folk clubs of the Village in the early 1960's. Taj moves in and out of country and urban blues styles and has dabbled in World Music as well. This rendition of "Fishin Blues" nods to the influence of the Reverend.

Dave Vann Ronk: One of the leading figures of the Greenwich Village folk scene, the late Van Ronk was a political activist and was directly influenced and took lessons from the Reverend. His work is textured by jazz and blues traditions. Dave talks about the Greenwich scene and his experiences and then performs "Down South Blues. "

Dave Bromberg: Dave is a truly gifted musician with an eclectic approach. He studied directly with the Reverend in the early 1960's and later branched out into diverse forms of roots music. Listen to him talk about the Village, the Reverend and then perform "Maple Leaf Rag." An absolutely fascinating video.

Jorma Kaukonen: Best known for being a founding member of the Jefferson Airplane, Jorma was a huge Reverend Gary Davis fan back in the sixties and stills honors his influence with covers. Here Jorma performs the Davis religious tune "I Am the Light of this World," one of my all time favorites.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Few Roots Favorites

Every month I post "A Few Roots Favorites" as a bit of a respite from the research and time involved in doing a more in depth post. It also allows me to talk a bit about musicians I really love who haven't found their way into a more extended post. I will also be thinking of ways to integrate those who appear here into future posts in which their music can be placed in historical context. Once, again, many thanks to the generous vinyl collectors at youtube whose contributions help to make this blog possible.

Jump Blues: Bandleader and Composer Tiny Bradshaw is an often forgotten giant from the jump blues period. Straddling Jazz Big Bands and Rhythm and Blues in the 1930s and 40's, Bradshaw is also a key link to the development of Rock n' Roll. His 1951 Jump Blues piece "The Train Kept a Rollin" was originally covered by the Johhny Burnette Trio in 1956 as rockabilly, then later by the Yardbirds, and more recently by Aerosmith.

Rhythm and Blues: New Orleans' own Larry Williams was revered by many British Invasion groups, his songs were covered by The Beatles, The Stones and The Animals. His 1959 recording "She Said Yeah" is brilliantly conceived, fusing pure Nola R&B with hints of the sounds of soul that were to mature a few years later. Covered later by the Animals and the Stones.

Jazz: Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis has been one of my favorites since I heard him do "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" back in the early 1970s. Marvelous tone and dynamics. Listen to Eddie's chops here as he solos for Count Basie on "Whirly Bird."

Vocalist: I have always been a huge fan of Dinah Washington, considering her vocals on par with Ella Fitzgerald. Listen to her skills on this laid back, loungy tune "Drinking Again." Absolutely anesthatizingly smooth and relaxing.

Rockabilly: Jerry Reed is best known for his unique "country" songs that charted back in the 1970s. While his sound from that period was interesting, his early rockabilly numbers on the Capitol label in the mid 1950's are unbelievably good. Jerry's vocals are unmistakable. Listen to "When I Found You" and "I've Had Enough," both from 1956.

Country Blues: Barbecue Bob, a huge influence on the great Buddy Moss and many other country blues and Piedmont Blues players form the 1930's. Listen to this unnamed blues, perhaps a prototypical version of "Big Dog." Very good recording quality for 1929.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

New Orleans R&B Kings

Among the numerous musically rich cities in the U. S. - Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Los Angeles,- New Orleans, for a number of reasons, occupies a particularly special niche. Often referred to as the birthplace of Jazz, the unique demographic history of the city with immigration from Arcadia as well as the Spanish and French speaking Caribbean endow it with a melange of cultural traditions that have spawned rich and complex musical mosaic. From its Jazz and Dixieland traditions rooted in icons like Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, the music associated with its famous Mardi Gras Crew music to more contemporary R&B and funk stars like the Meters and the Neville Brothers, New Orleans has consistently produced topflight musicians whose techniques speak to a particular style associated with the city.

During the post war period, New Orleans witnessed the rise of a flourishing R&B scene rooted in the city's traditions which extend back to the early eclectic piano style of Tuts Washington and the blusier approach of Champion Jack Dupree. Washington's influence was instrumental in the evolution of the distinct piano style associated with New Orleans, popularized to mainstream audiences by the 1955 crossover hit Ain't That a Shame by the city's own Fats Domino. By the 1950's New Orleans musicians were competing with Memphis and Chicago's best for R&B chart space as its rhythm and blues recording circuit expanded on small record labels like Ace, Specialty and Imperial. Since the quantity of N.O. musicians who charted songs during the period is substantial, here is a list of some of the superb N.O. R&B artists and their tops hits, some of which are true classics which have been covered by scores of musicians.

Smiley Lewis: Smiley's classic Imperial recording of "I Hear You Knockin" charted in 1955 with Huey "Piano" Smith on keyboards, yet subsequent covers of this song by Gale Storm and later by Dave Edmunds are better known.

Earl King: King's signature piece, "Come On" is a genuine R&B guitar classic which was later covered by Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Huey "Piano" Smith Smith is known for association with Smiley Lewis, Little Richard and Earl King, and for being the composer of "Sea Cruise," made popular by Frankie Ford. Check out his classic Nola styled "Don't You Just Know It." Huey's classic is the well known and oft covered "Rockin Pneumonia."

Eddie Bo: Eddie is but another of the many piano aces from New Orleans. Check out his 1961 soulish classic "I'm Wise" . Superb.

Lloyd Price: Price had one of the very first successful crossover recordings in his 1952 smash hit Lawdy Miss Clawdy on Specialty records. It has been covered by scores of artists. Also, his 1958 Stagger Lee charted and also crossed over.

Johnny Adams: Adams comes out of a more gospel oriented tradition yet had success on the R&B charts in the late fifties with songs like "I Won't Cry," which show Doo Wop influence.

Professor Longhair: The Professor's piano style had a huge impact on Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Alan Toussaint and Dr. John. Charted with the pure Nola style hits "Tipitina" and "Big Chief" in the 1950's. Check out his unique playing here on "Big Chief" from 1963.

Dr. John: His style is rooted in the New Orleans piano of Professor Longhair and charted a hit in 1959, "Storm Warning." The Doctor helped to popularize the Nola style by combining it with rock music in the sixties. Listen to the Doctor deal on the traditional Nola song "Iko Iko."

James Booker: A veritable wizard of New Orleans piano. An early organ R&B hit was "Gonzo" from 1960. Check out Booker on this fantastic recording from Montreaux in 1978.