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6 CD SET: CLASSIC JAMES P. JOHNSON SESSIONS 1921-1943. Mosaic 262. www.mosaicrecords.com
If the great Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson is remembered today, it is because he composed the theme song of the 1920s: The Charleston. The Mosaic set aims to restore his legacy as a formidable and highly influential pianist who helped form the styles of Fats Waller, Count Basie, Art Tatum and even Thelonious Monk.
James P. Johnson was born in New Jersey in 1894 and by the time he was 22 he was already making ragtime piano rolls. During that latter 1910s, he not only studied piano with a classical teacher, but also toured with a number of vaudeville revues which required him to play in all manner of settings.
This collection opens in 1921 with his accompaniments to Lavinia Turner, an undistinguished vocalist probably plucked from a show revue to record “blues.” The success of Mamie Smith’s records the year before prompted a boom in blues recordings. The majority of these records featured such vocalists backed by pianists who were utilitarian at best. But from the outset, James P. Johnson is shows he’s the master of this music, adding trills, bass runs and dynamics that were certainly not printed on the lead sheets. Listen to Watch Me Go, a medium tempo song in which he puts a stride piano masterpiece underneath her singing. Turner’s name might have been on the label, but HE was the star.
Also that year, Johnson recorded the first version of his iconic Carolina Shout – the first recording of stride piano, a very percussive bass line alternating bass notes and chords. His style is fully formed, though he continued to study with classical teachers for years to come. Johnson recorded a number of other solos for various record companies though, surprisingly, not Charleston which was well-recorded by other artists. Again, his use of dynamics set him apart from other pianists of the day.
By the mid-1920s, Johnson had become friendly with Perry Bradford and Clarence Williams who seemed to have a lock on booking Afro-American record dates in those days. The results produced some fine band sessions under his name. His bass and trills add an equal voice to the horns – Put Your Mind Right On It and Chicago Blues are the best examples — and create a much fuller sound than comparable dates with other pianists. At this time he began a series of recordings with Bessie Smith. Again, the dynamics in his accompaniments, from the rumbling bass as she sings of the floods in Backwater Blues to the melodramatic trills underlining lost love in You Don’t Understand, extract the best from her majestic voice – and how he buoys her on On Revival Day is pure magic.
By the decade’s end, Johnson had penned another major hit, a jaunty romantic ballad, If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight which, again, he didn’t record. He did record perhaps his greatest stride piece several times – You’ve Got to be Modernistic. It’s a shame that Mosaic could not license the Brunswick piano solo with its furious tempo, slashing dissonances (that show to way to Monk) and gob-smacking technique. However the full band session for Victor under his nominal leadership (with Red Allen, King Oliver and guests from Luis Russell’s band) is no slouch even if it misses the intricacies of the piano version.
Faux spirituals and hokum were staples of afro-American entertainment in that decade, so it’s no surprise that Johnson would appear on a number of recordings aimed at that audience, particularly at the onset of the Depression when such discs usually outsold more “serious” jazz and blues. Teddy Bunn (who would, much later, appear on a Frank Zappa album) and Spencer Williams are good risqué fun on riffy tunes like Goose and Gander, Blow it Up, Wipe it Off (you get the idea), but the pianists’ contributions save them from the bin of mediocrity.
The Depression hit Johnson hard. Beyond the tough times, music styles were changing and he was less in demand for recordings and band dates. Income from song royalties allowed him to create longer pieces – Yamecraw, which was filmed in the mid-30s, and Harlem Symphony, which was performed several times but never recorded. Apart from some pickup dates with Clarence Williams in 1933, he did not appear on record again until 1938.
In that year, the French jazz writer Hughes Panassié journeyed to New York to produce a series of all-star recordings for Bluebird. Panassié teamed James P with Tommy Ladnier on trumpet, Mezz Mezzrow, and others. The session was a bloody mess (great musicians don’t necessarily recognize one anothers’ talents and Mezzrow was a usurper) but it did produce two great sides, Comin’ on with the Come-on and Revolutionary Blues.
For the second round, Panassié was better prepared with a band that included Frank Newton, Pete Brown and his procurer, Mezzrow. This session truly shows what a pianist of Johnson’s ability can bring to an ensemble. His figures beneath the group on the World is Waiting for the Sunrise and the loping right hand on Who are an entire rhythm section of their own.
Following these sessions, the critic John Hammond helped Johnson set up his own group and arranged several sessions for Vocalion with Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Sid Catlett and Gene Sedric. Unfortunately, most of these sides remained unissued until the 1960s – Hammond had believed they were not commercial enough. In these sessions, James P meets his opposite in Red Allen. Johnson was all about the beat. Four-four rock solid. Allen frequently leaves the beat behind (PLEASE Mosaic, do a Red Allen set!!) on flights of adventure unmatched until Charlie Parker came around. Listen to Memories of You (first take especially) and see if Allen’s solo could not fit into a contemporary jazz recording.
The collection closes with a date organized by a jazz-loving twenty-something, Bob Thiele, who borrowed funds from his parents to make this and another date by Coleman Hawkins. The occasion of this December, 1943 recording was a loving tribute to Fats Waller who had died suddenly two weeks earlier. Accordingly both sides, Blues for Fats and Blueberry Rhyme are beautifully subdued and introspective.
Johnson remained active recording and broadcasting with Rudy Blesh’s radio program until a debilitating stroke in 1951. Jazz was cool then. Stride was passé. He died four years later.
It’s doubtful that this set alone could lead a full-scale Johnson revival, but perhaps a revival of the show, Runnin’ Wild which produced the title song and Charleston, would go a long way to that end.
Until then, get this essential set and marvel at this amazing pianist in all sorts of settings.
BOOK AND 3-CD SET: Berlin: Sounds of an Era, 1920-1950. By Marko Paysan. Hardbound, 348pp plus accompanying 3-CD set, 300 photos/illustrations. earBOOKS. €49.95. www.earbooks.net - also available on Amazon
The fascination with pre-war Berlin is one shared across the whole spectrum of the arts - music, literature, photography, painting, theatre, film, architecture - and is one that shows no sign of abating, with appeal to young and old alike. The enduring images - Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Sally Bowles, Louise Brookes in Pandora’s Box, Brigitte Helm as the maschinenmensch in Metropolis, the paintings of George Grosz and Otto Dix - are as potent and as popular as ever. Of course, part of this fascination is that we all know how it was going to end, but for a few brief years it seemed that Berlin really was the world’s cultural capital.
This book is a lavish musical and visual homage to pre-war Berlin, in particular the world of popular dance music - the hotels, cafés, dance halls, night clubs and cabarets and the personalities. Epic in scale at 350 pages, illustrated with over 300 beautifully-reproduced photographs, illustrations, paintings and graphics, author Marko Paysan has captured in images and dual German/English text the spirit, the intensity, and the excitement, as well as the danger and turmoil bubbling below the surface, of Weimar-era Berlin, and the subsequent descent into Nazism, destruction and partition.
It is very much a journey through the Berlin of the 1920s, 30s and 40s and, fittingly, opens with the reader arriving at one of the great metropolitan railway termini, and swiftly and effortlessly moving via dedicated lift or pedestrian tunnel directly into one of Berlin’s world-renowned hotels - names such as the Excelsior, the Adlon, the Eden or the Esplanade. Once in the hotel afternoon tea to the strains of Marek Weber’s Orchestra, or that of Efim Schachmeister, then dress for dinner and out on the town - open-air dancing to Lud Gluskin’s band on the roof of the Café Berlin or Eric Borchard’s orchestra at the Barberina-Palais, listening to Danny Polo and Dave Tough with The New Yorkers at the Valencia Bar, or on to one of the cavernous city theatres to see visiting show bands such as Sam Wooding’s, or to a jam-packed Scala Theatre to catch Jack Hylton’s band on their much-heralded annual visit.
Of course, we know it couldn’t and wouldn’t last, and with Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in January 1933, change was swift. Jewish bandleaders such as James Kok, Marek Weber, Dajos Bela, Ben Berlin, Julian Fuhs and Efim Schachmeister - all major players on the German musical scene - were forced, or chose, to leave Germany in order to continue to work. The Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Chamber of Music) proscribed all music by ‘degenerate’ Jewish and black composers, which pretty much covered all jazz but, amazingly, jazz continued to be played and recorded, and American jazz records were openly available until the outbreak of war.
As a photo-essay this is a truly visual feast; the quality and selection of images is superb, from the mood-setting night time exterior photographs of bars, cafés and nightclubs to the ‘fly on the wall’ interior shots of live action in these clubs; by stark contrast the daylight photos of the utter devastation wrought upon the city in 1945 are truly shocking.
The author explained to me in a phone call that the musical selection for the three accompanying CDs was meant to reflect the range of popular dance music that provided the soundtrack to life in Berlin, and that jazz was just one part of that musical beat. Thus whilst jazz and ‘hot’ dance music have significant parts to play, they are likely to be paired with waltzes, tangos or pasa dobles.
CD 1 opens with what might be described as an archetypal ‘Eurojazz’ record - Efim Schachmeister’s Go South. Nanny goat-toned trumpets, wobbly saxes, a nasal vocal sung by an American (a band member, perhaps?), all tied together with a clunky Charleston beat - perfection. Eric Borchard’s Sure As You’re Born from 1924 is the oldest track on the set and, whilst it isn’t the best of his output, I’d happily give it shelf space if anyone has a spare copy!
Dajos Bela’s take on Heebie Jeebies is surprisingly hot, with excellent trumpet and clarinet solos, as is Julian Fuhs’ Scatter Your Smiles, with American trumpeter Mickey Diamond to the fore.
Lud Gluskin’s orchestras make three appearances - a straight rendition of Jericho and an equally lacklustre I Owe You, but both are atoned for by Milenburg Joys, a flagwaving stomper dominated by the bass sax of Spencer Clark, at the top of his game, Gene Prendergast’s superior alto sax and some remarkable trombone from Emile Christian, whose attack and ideas belie his initial training as a cornetist.
Local talent is featured with tracks by the ubiquitous Weintraub Syncopators, Barnabas von Géczy, and Fred Bird, whose Hallo, Hallo, Hier Radio! is a fun parody of the availability of Europe-wide music via the airwaves, complete with ‘tuning in’ effects.
By the time we reach CD2 we are in 1932 and the Depression is really biting - Germany’s predominantly industrial base was particularly hard hit, and Berlin was no longer on the itinerary of visiting American bands and musicians. Hitler’s rise to power saw opportunities for visiting musicians decline further still, and instead we hear a greater reliance on ‘home grown’ talent playing slow fox trots, waltzes and tangos, replete with accordions, tinkly ‘novelty piano’ duets, and xylophone features such as James Kok’s Der Lustige Xylophonist, despite that fact that the same band could tear Tiger Rag to bits, but alas not on this CD. Of the three CDs in the set, this is the one least likely to interest even the most broadminded jazz and dance music fan, although Oscar Joost’s Heute Nacht Oder Nie has some booting bass sax (player unidentified) and good section work, whilst Vademecum Tango by vocalist Fred Kassem with a section of Bernhard Ette’s band is positively bonkers - an English language advertising record promoting a brand of toothpaste!
CD3 opens in 1937 - ‘Swing’ is the dominant theme despite the strictures of the Reichsmusikkammer. Kurt Hohenberger’s Orchester open proceedings with a spirited version of What Will I Tell My Heart, followed by a breakneck-tempo version of Jammin’, both featuring the leader’s trumpet and Ernst Höllerhagen’s fluid clarinet and alto.
Swiss saxophonist Ernst ‘Teddy’ Stauffer was the leader of a popular swing band in Berlin in the mid-1930s, and he is represented here by two very interesting selections - a lightly swinging You Started Me Dreaming, featuring guitarist Billy Toffel’s Louis-inspired vocal, and Bei Mir Bis Du Schön. The latter is taken from a possibly unique unissued test pressing - its Yiddish title and Jewish composing team made it unlikely to have ever been remotely considered for issue but, despite the obvious risks, Stauffer’s band continued to feature the number in their repertoire.
The Fritz Weber orchestra make pleasant, if slightly archaic, work of Die Liebe Ist Ein Spiel Zu Zwei’n, which is more than can be said for the track by ‘Bimbo, der Tricktrommer der Berliner Scala’. German Odeon, buoyed by the sales of their issues of Joe Daniels’ Parlophones, engaged theatre drummer Ernst ‘Bimbo’ Weiland to put together a group to emulate their success. Whilst Aber Treu Will Keine Sein is pleasant enough musically, and features American guitarist Mike Danzi less than a month before the outbreak of war, ‘Bimbo’s’ contributions do rather bring to mind a hardware salesman falling down a flight of stairs.
Trombonist Willie Berking’s Ich Mache Alles Mit Musik comes as a shock - it’s Berlin, it’s March 1941, the Nazis are about to invade Russia, and they’re blasting out a full-blown American Swing band-style arrangement (actually by Berking himself), replete with belting solos and a hard-swinging rhythm section.
A year later, America had entered the war and in Berlin three clarinettists - Teddy Kleindein, Benny de Weille and Horst Winter - are slugging it out as to who can be the hippest. Each has a track on this CD, and the best for me is the Benny de Weille of So Ist Es, So Bleibt Es, a passable imitation of the Benny Goodman Sextet, composed by pianist Primo Angeli (conscription’s ever-widening net meant bandleaders had to search further afield for musicians). The two guitars of Meg Tevelian and Alfio Grasso give it a slightly Gallic Hot Club flavour and is none the worse for it.
By 1943, conscription and dwindling supplies of shellac and other raw materials saw recording activity all but grind to a halt, but not before Horst Winter and Hans-Georg Schütz get their respective big bands onto disc. The latter’s Ilonka features a well-drilled, proficient band despite the obvious difficulties of getting decent musicians; only the rather square drummer lets the side down.
The final half-dozen sides are of post-war German vocal groups and big bands which although technically accomplished are very bland with nothing new to say, and it is little wonder that disaffected teenagers were drawn to the raw excitement of Rhythm and Blues and Rock ‘N Roll.
In a project of such scale, it is inevitable that there are omissions - you’ll search in vain for tracks by Sam Wooding, Alex Hyde, or a youthful (if not always tuneful) Al Bowlly with Arthur Briggs or Billy Bartholomew. The omission of Wooding is understandable - his complete output is available on Jazz Oracle, and much of Briggs with and without Bowlly is already available, but Hyde does deserve to be here and also to see a half decent reissue devoted to his band.
Particular attention and kudos must be given to Christian Zwarg’s sound restoration - they are uniformly superb. The music has air and space around the instruments - even on Eric Borchard’s acoustic offering - with crystal clear rhythm sections (banjo strings and cymbals made of shiny bright metal, not dull mush), and clear top ends and firm bass. These are exemplary transfers and should be required listening for anyone tempted to let themselves loose on ‘restoring’ old records (YouTube uploaders please take special note!).
All in all, this is an exceptionally high quality production, and one which will appeal to the majority of VJM readers, for the quality of the writing, the imagery and the music in glorious fidelity and at a price which, even without the 3 CDs, is an absolute steal. It’ll grace your coffee table and hi-fi for weeks and months to come, so order it today!
CALENDAR: BLUES IMAGES: CLASSIC ARTWORK FROM THE 1920s. Includes 23 Track CD. www.bluesimages.com
Back for the 14th edition is John Tefteller’s classic blues calendar made from artwork taken from 1920s Paramount (mostly) and Vocalion advertisements of blues records. In the years since, the advertising art has been supplemented by high quality studio portraits of blues musicians that surfaced a few years ago.
This year’s cover is Memphis Minnie’s Talking About You, with Minnie giving the neighborhood rounder a solid piece of her mind on Vocalion 1476. January is Garfield Akers Cottonfield Blues, reissued in brighter, more detailed sound and February brings us Jed Davenport’s blues-harp take on the classic How Long How Long. Frank Palmes, whose harp-blowing masterpiece Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘Ligion Down occupies May, is somewhat of a mystery but Charley Patton who follows with Lord I’m Discouraged (complete with squeaking chair) is, of course, one of the stars of John’s yearly collection.
A new entry is Blind Leroy Garnett who made only one session for Paramount in 1929 with the magnificent rag, Louisiana Glide then back to a familiar face, Skip James with Illinois Blues. A newly-found version of Big Bill Broonzy’s I Can’t Be Satisfied (recorded for Gennett, not ARC) is the September entry. One comment here: someone should check the Library of Congress files for these Broonzy Gennett sessions because they appear to be recorded several RPM’s too fast, especially when compared to the same titles he recorded for ARC around the same time. (Unless the ARC’s were recorded a bit too slow).
Another new entry is the Mobile Strugglers who recorded 10 sides in 1949 for Bill Russell’s American Music label. Only two sides were issued on 78 and John presents them here with a high resolution version of the photo which came with the 78.
The bonus tracks include the flip sides of those advertised, plus Ishman Bracey offered in much better sound than previously available.
As usual, it’s a hearty recommendation for both wall and CD player.
CD: UNISSUED ON 78s, “Hot Dance Music and Jazz from Britain 1923 - 1936.” 24 tracks, including Fred Elizalde, Jack Payne, Philip Lewis, Spike Hughes, Claude Bampton and other rarities. Retrieval RTR 79081. www.challenge.nl
The recordings on this CD are all, with one exception, taken from test pressings: the exception is a track by Ray Noble, that was, apparently, issued on HMV, though only a few copies are known. The liner notes are slightly confusing on this point, as the take shown in the discography is actually the common one!
No matter, this is an assemblage of extremely rare material and I doubt whether most collectors will have more than a couple of the tracks in their own collections, given that test pressings of British bands seem to be much less common than those of their US counterparts. Many of these have not been available before on CD, so this a very welcome addition to the shelves.
The CD opens with an unidentified band, probably under the leadership of pianist Billy Arnold, which recorded You’ve Got To See Mama Ev’ry Night for Columbia in 1923. If it indeed is Arnold’s band – and there’s no proof either way – then the fine cornet and sax playing will be by Charles Kleiner (or an unknown colleague) on cornet and Henry Arnold on soprano. This is a relaxed, swinging performance, rather better some of Arnold’s issued material and there’s no musical evidence as to why it was rejected, except, quite possibly, because it was thought to be uncommercial. It’s followed by a medley, again by an un-named group, though the identification here, as by the Gilt-Edged Four, is perhaps more certain. It’s a curious recording, which starts with a spirited two choruses of Yes Sir! That’s My Baby, then lapses into a very unsure and under-rehearsed I’ll See You in My Dreams, followed by Best Black, which the Gilt-Edged Four did record for Columbia a few months before this test was made. Best Black tails off, rather as if the recording manager had appeared waving his arms for them to stop playing…which may well have been the case!
Most of the hot sides by the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band are very hard to find, so to have an unissued test of one of them – Sugar Foot Stomp – is a treat indeed. Jazz Records lists this rejected take-1 as the issued one, but it is not. Frank Guarente’s solo work on this performance is much hotter than on the issued take-2.
Next come two tracks by a college band, The Oxford University Bandits Club Orchestra, recorded for Vocalion’s 8-inch Broadcast label in 1927. Both The Blue Room and The Girl Friend are fairly straight dance band performances, the solo work on both being that of the pianist Guy Sanderson (later the Bishop of Plymouth!), who delivers a pretty good emulation of Fred Elizalde on the second title with some excellent improvisations, but rather hams it up on the first with heavy and most un-Elizalde-like left-hand rhythm. These sides were at one point even thought to be by Elizalde. I must point out - as a Cambridge man – that the liner notes commit a ‘howler’ in their comparison with Elizalde’s varsity group here, by confusing the two ‘blues’: Cambridge is the light blue and Oxford the dark, not, as stated, the other way around. Indeed, my own university jazz group made its first public appearance as ‘The Light Blues’…
Elizalde’s groups feature on three of the following tracks, with Arkansas, Dance Little Lady and Singapore Sorrows. The solo work on all these is markedly different from the issued takes, so we have the pleasure of hearing entirely original work from Chelsea Quealey, Adrian Rollini, Bobby Davis and Fred Elizalde himself, as well as from Fud Livingston on the third title. In fact, the Rollini bass sax solo on Dance Little Lady is entirely omitted from the take Brunswick actually issued.
Nobody’s Fault But Your Own is one of the hardest-to-find titles by Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra (I searched for mine for nearly 30 years!). It features an interesting and quite uncommercial arrangement by Ray Noble, which may account for the record’s rarity. The star of the recording is trumpeter Frank Wilson, who takes a blistering solo on this unissued take, quite different from the issued version. A Dicky Bird Told Me So is a showcase for Dave Roberts on baritone sax: he appears again on I Wanna Go Places and Do Things, though the honours here again go to Frank Wilson, whose ensemble lead is terrific.
Eight of the next nine tracks are tests of bands that recorded for Decca: Down Among the Sugar Cane is an unissued version by the house band, Philip Lewis and his Orchestra, directed in reality by sax-player Arthur Lally, who solos on bass-sax and which also includes a fine trumpet solo from Sylvester Ahola, who is on all but two of these earlier Deccas. Technically, this is one of Decca’s more successful efforts (their recordings at this early period are often either acoustically ‘dead’ or curiously out of balance), but it was probably rejected because of some rather dubious harmony in the final ensemble; Maurice Elwin’s vocal is also not one of his best: he’s obviously singing in a key that doesn’t suit him. The same can be said of him on What Is This Thing Called Love?, which was apparently recorded with speed wobbles, which have been corrected for this issue. Otherwise, there is some nice solo work here. Both acoustic and balance are much better on I’m Feathering A Nest (issued as by the Rhythm Maniacs); there’s some really excellent jazz ensemble playing on this title. The quaintly named Spike Hughes’ Decca-Dents are featured on two tracks: Crazy Feet and The Boop-Boop-A-Doop-A-Doo Trot: the former is from Hughes’ first recording session. This is a seven-piece group, which sounds as if it’s much bigger. Sylvester Ahola turns in a red-hot solo along with violinist Stan Andrews. On the second of the two Decca-Dents titles, Ahola has departed, restrained from freelancing by the Musicians’ Union, and is replaced by Max Goldberg, who does the job just as well – though differently! His solo is excellent. The final Hughes track is A New Kind of Man, for which his band made no fewer the five takes over two sessions, none of which was issued. It’s difficult to hear why on this one (take -2), though it has to be said that the arrangement does seem to meander rather aimlessly in places. However, on the plus side, Norman Payne plays some beautiful trumpet and the ensemble is well balanced and plays first-class jazz.
Interspersed among these sides is an unissued take of Ambrose’s Lovable and Sweet (also for Decca), and a recording by ‘Melland’s Band’ for Parlophone. Sylvester Ahola delivers a short but red-hot solo on the Ambrose side, in what is one of the many fine, swinging arrangements Lew Stone wrote for this band. The liner notes remark that this solo differs little from that on the issued take-2, (this being -3) but, interestingly, that on another unissued take (-1), is quite different, which suggests that maybe the A&R man had made a decision as to which he preferred and wanted Ahola to stick to it on further takes. Henry Melland (real name Nevill Melland) had two piano solos issued on Parlophone in 1928, but this orchestra test, made in 1930, is not listed anywhere to my knowledge. It may well include Spike Hughes on bass and Billy Amstell on reeds, along with alto-saxophonist Philip Buchel. Amstell and an unknown trumpeter turn in some nice solos on this great rarity.
Roy Fox’s band appears next with Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On, on which Nat Gonella’s trumpet work is markedly different – much hotter – than the issued take, which is less interesting by comparison. The recording quality here is, like many early Deccas, a little ‘dead’ and overmodulated. In contrast, Ray Noble’s Who Walks In When I Walk Out? is superbly recorded by HMV, with Tiny Winters’ bass playing giving the rhythm section a wonderful lift. This is one of Noble’s best and hottest recordings under his own name, and the solo work throughout (from Freddy Gardner, Lew Davis, Harry Berly and Ernie Ritte) is likewise amongst the best of British at this period (1934). Both these two sides feature vocals by Al Bowlly.
The final three tracks are by Billy Mason, Jack Hylton and Claude Bampton. St Louis Blues is one of only a very few sides by the pianist-Band leader Billy Mason (who cut his recording teeth with Fred Elizalde); the band here includes a front line of Duncan Whyte, Dave Shand and Buddy Featherstonhaugh on trumpet and reeds. The old warhorse is taken at some speed, but Featherstonhaugh copes well and solos with great verve and variety over some eight choruses – surely a first on a British jazz record. This is a truly stunning performance. A second unissued take of Jack Hylton’s Chinatown, My Chinatown (this is take-1) was issued on LP many years ago. The arrangement is a conventional swing-band effort and the up-tempo has a somewhat express-train impact, though this doesn’t detract from the excellent solo work by Les Carew on trombone and Dave Shand (again) on alto, though Philippe Brun’s superbly crafted chorus is spoilt by the fact it’s just slightly off-key – which may well have been why this was never issued. Last but by no means least, we have an unissued and untitled track by another group of Bandits: Claude Bampton’s. They swing lightly through this, for its time, very modern number: most of the band are little known, though none the worse players for that: trumpeter Tom Cryan and saxophonists Norman Low and Ken Oldham all contribute some fine material. Oldham was later a stalwart of Harry Parry’s wartime Radio Rhythm Club groups.
This CD is a remarkable collection of music, much of it hitherto unissued and unknown. The tracks are beautifully re-mastered by Nick Dellow and Charles Hippisley-Cox supplies thoughtful and informative liner notes. Highly recommended.
BOOK: GENNETT RECORDS AND STARR PIANO. By Charlie B. Dahan and Linda Gennett Irmscher. Arcadia Publishing. Softbound, 128pp, many photos. ISBN: 9781467117258. $21.99 but can be found for much less on www.amazon.com and www.amazon.co.uk
Mere mention of the name ‘Gennett’ guarantees a pricking of the ears and the rapt attention of jazz, blues, country and hot dance music record collectors in a way that only the word ‘Paramount’ can rival. And with good reason: for roughly 15 years a hugely-respected piano manufacturer based in Richmond, Indiana recorded and released ground-breaking, seminal, vernacular American music which to this day is valued for the quality of the music itself as well as the artefacts on which the music was pressed. The canon of artists who entered the cramped wooden shed adjacent to a railway siding - freezing in winter, blisteringly hot in summer - to preserve on disc their music is almost beyond compare in the annals of American popular music - Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, Hoagy Carmichael, Freddy Keppard, Guy Lombardo, Earl Hines, Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Gene Autry, Uncle Dave Macon, Ernest Stoneman - the list goes on and on...
Whilst much has been written about Gennett Records and the artists who recorded for them, little has been devoted to the background of the Starr Piano Company, whose sideline in making and selling records and phonographs was but a minor diversion in their long history. Whilst this book is primarily an illustrated history (and a superb one at that), the accompanying text to the unmatched collection of photographs helps unravel the story of this fascinating company and the families involved in its foundation and operation.
Beginning in the early 1870s with the James M. Starr Piano Company, the book covers the early years, including the part played by Nashville-born businessman Henry Gennett who, along with his father-in-law bought a 50% share of the Starr Piano Company in 1893. In 1915 the directors resolved to enter the record business and initially followed the lead of the majority of small startup record businesses by establishing a small studio in New York, home of the music publishing and recording industries, and used the services of familiar studio-based recording artists to churn out the same old crap as everyone else in town, albeit tied legally to using a vertical-cut recording process. All that changed in 1919 when the dynamic head of the record division, Fred Gennett, announced in the trade press their new line of lateral cut records. They were promptly sued by Victor - who lost - opening the floodgates to scores of other companies, new and established, to enter the lateral-cut disc market, consigning the outmoded vertical-cut system to the fringes of the industry, in the shape of Thomas Edison.
Things really take off in 1921, when an old wood kiln in Starr’s Richmond plant was converted into a makeshift recording studio, headed up by Ezra Wickmeyer. Being the only permanent recording studio between New York and Los Angeles, Gennett were ideally placed to attract musical talent from a very wide area, and to market the resulting records nationally. Thus the considerable number of Chicago and mid-west based performers that made the trip to Richmond to make records that subsequently went on to national fame.
With the onset of the Depression Gennett, like many other record companies, suffered from plummeting sales, and the popularity of radio ultimately sealed their fate. However Harry Gennett Jr. maintained some recording activity through his Gennett Sound Effects records, aimed at the film and radio industries, but that wasn’t going to swell the coffers, and eventually the plant was sold to Decca, who continued to press records there into the 1960s, when Mercury Records took on the plant for a few more years. The demise, destruction and semi-resurrection of the old Gennett plant as the part of the Whitewater River Gorge Trail is well covered in photographs, bringing the Gennett story and the close relationship with Richmond up to date.
Virtually every page of this book has one or two photographs covering the history of Starr Piano, Gennett Records, the families involved, the artists who recorded for Gennett, and many examples of marketing and promotional material they used to spread their fame. Whilst many of the jazz and blues photographs will be familiar to many readers, there are very many that will not; photographs from the Gennett family (including co-author and VJM subscriber Linda Gennett Irmscher), local archives, collectors and others make this a visually stunning book, and my only gripe is that some of the photos are a little too small - that and the fact that the marvellous photo of Art Landry’s Call of the North Orchestra sweltering in the Richmond studio, jacketless, collarless and tieless, that graces the cover wraps around to the rear and is not reproduced in full on the inside - a pity.
Production quality is up to Arcadia’s high standard, as anyone familiar with their ‘Images of America’ series will know - clean typefaces and well-reproduced images with insightful accompanying text.
If you’re reading this review in Vintage Jazz Mart it’s a pretty sure bet you’ll have an interest in at least some of the music recorded by Gennett, in which case I can only suggest you order your copy today!
3-CD SET: THE COLOR LINE, Les Artistes Africains-Américains et la Ségrégation 1916-1962. 60 tracks. Fremeaux & Associés FA5654. www.fremeaux.com
This 3 CD set is a tie-in with an exhibition at the Musée Quai Branly Jacques Chirac in Paris, which runs until 15 January 2017. The notes by Bruno Blum imply that the exhibition’s scope encompasses the 1966 Civil Rights Act but the CDs’ coverage is limited to the public domain period. Blum’s essay is organized under sub-headings, ‘Blackface Minstrels’, ‘Jim Crow’, ‘Harlem Renaissance’, ‘Fracture social’, ‘Chants de travail’, ‘Negro Spirituals’, and ‘Droits Civiques’. I guess that this reflects the structuring of the exhibition and I really do hope that the exhibition itself is both more coherent and presented in a less splattershot manner than these CDs. There has clearly been difficulty in shoe-horning the arbitrary contents into the pigeon holes provided and at times it is hard not to admire Blum as he tries to relate music to theme (and frequently fails). Definitely not admirable is the sterile academicism of insisting on cluttering the discography with full or birth names: “Eleanora Fagan as Billie Holiday” is just about tolerable, “Charles Edward Anderson Berry aka Chuck Berry” is pedantic, and “Peter Seeger aka Pete Seeger” is merely silly.
The extent to which the contents have been determined by the availability of other people’s dubbings is distressingly obvious. The clarity of The American Woman and The West Indian Man by Sam Manning and Anna Freeman, courtesy no doubt of John R.T. Davies and Jazz Oracle, makes it stand out!
Blackface minstrelsy is represented by Harry C. Browne whose Roll On Heave That Cotton and Oh Susanna are certainly thought-provoking in their nostalgia for slavery (in 1916): “Hey Rufus, who owns that darkie with the loud-check suit coming out the levee.” Al Jolson’s Mammy represents a gentler approach to blackface. A live recording by Marcus Garvey provides much-needed relief. “I don’t have to apologize to anybody for being Black, because God Almighty knew exactly what he was doing when he made me Black!” This is here dated to 1921 but is extracted from a 17-minute speech easily found on-line, whose text is believed to have been written in 1924. It clearly relates to his impending imprisonment. Evidently more could be discovered of its provenance. “In death I shall be a terror to the foes of African liberty.” Which has come to pass. It is followed by just 14 seconds of his See Bee 208, which is a lost opportunity (but it also is easily found on-line).
Black And Tan Fantasy (the Brunswick version) is the first of several instrumentals. Blind Blake’s Dry Bone Shuffle “is about skeletons coming alive in the desert, in order to give faith to Jewish slaves walking to Babylon.” (Alternatively it might be so titled because it is a bones solo.) Monk Hazel’s version exemplifies, so we are told, the white High Society to which African Americans did not have access. Piano solos are contrasted on the basis of their titles. “Earl Hines, the first modern jazz pianist, is also alluding to the social fracture with his 1928 tune, Chicago High Life. Inversely, with Low Society, Ray Charles expresses his feelings about the black underclass.” Cliché and commonplace follow one another with pointless abandon.
The selections begin to get a bit more pertinent with Casey Bill’s W.P.A Blues, Lead Belly’s Bourgeois Blues, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, and, more imaginatively, Cab Calloway’s Tarzan Of Harlem. The first CD ends with a bracket of songs concerned with the penal system. Bukka White sings of Parchman Farm, various prisoners sing at Parchman Farm. Josh White launches the era of protest songs (and it is good to be reminded how much more musically rewarding his efforts are than some). “When I got to the army, same old Jim Crow” (Uncle Sam Says). His later Jim Crow Train on CD Two is pretty good too and has Sonny Greer on drums.
Disc 2 opens with Jim Crow, a doubtless deeply sincere but utterly dreary “protest” song written by Peter Seeger as Pete Seeger. Leadbelly’s Jim Crow Blues could not be further removed in either musical or emotional aesthetic. No better demonstration could be imagined of the difference between wearing your heart on your sleeve and actually having one. The whole of Ellington’s Black, Brown And Beige follows (in the cut-down version). Paul Robeson’s Water Boy picks up on Ellington’s use of work song. Floyd Dixon’s Hard Road Blues has a wondrous tenor sax solo by Maxwell Davis. Big Bill Broonzy’s Black, Brown And White (live from the Salle Pleyel, Paris, 1952) is carefully crafted for his new audience.
I can’t figure out what I’ve Been Born Again by The Blind Boys of Alabama has to do with the color line except that everything in African American life was (and is) influenced by white hostility and prejudice. Mahalia Jackson’s No Room At The Inn better justifies its presence, and the final gospel entry, Brother Will Hairston’s The Alabama Bus, is both an immortal masterpiece and a very brave direct confrontation of the issue. CD 2 continues with a distinctly token Caribbean representation in Harry Belafonte’s Star-O and the much superior and more explicit Brown Skin Girl by Lloyd Prince Thomas, a song about babies irresponsibly left behind by visiting American lotharios. “I tell you a story about Millie, she made a nice blue-eyed baby.” “Brownskin girl, stay home and mind baby, I’m going away in a sailing boat.”
Two long jazz tracks also appear. Thelonious Monk’s 1955 reprise of Black And Tan Fantasy is accompanied by Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke and performed in swing rhythms. The fourteen minutes of John Coltrane and Wilbur Harden being Pan African in Gold Coast is certainly “a tribute to the land from which so many slaves had been deported”, but I suspect was intended as a celebration of its recently gained independence. A trombonist (Curtis Fuller) is present whom the note writer doesn’t seem to have noticed. I cannot imagine this contributing anything at all to anyone’s understanding of segregation. The token African item on CD 3, Babatunde Olatunji’s Kiyakika is of equally impenetrable relevance given that the lyrics are not translated.
The third CD has four titles by “Elias Bates McDaniel as Bo Diddley”, including the highly relevant You Can’t Judge A Book (By Looking At The Cover), and Chuck Berry’s Brown-Eyed Handsome Man as a further example of the new assertiveness of the Civil Rights era. Two contrasting versions of Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen, by Louis Armstrong and Snooks Eaglin, approach from a different direction. No justification is offered for Aretha Franklin’s Are You Sure, but musically it hardly needs one. A 1962 Judge Harsh Blues by Furry Lewis harks back to an earlier era.
Ancient Aethiopia by Sun Ra (Le Sony’r Ra aka Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, in case you (a) care and (b) don’t have any reference books)(1959) revisits Pan Africanism. Exodus from a 1961 VJ album by Eddie Harris revisits the back to Africa movement (according to Blum). They have in common that they could not be further removed from the fashionable post-bop of their era. Sun Ra’s is essentially a swing performance which starts as a feature for the flutes of Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick and gravitates to some thunderous piano from the leader. Harris and his pianist Walter Pickens play furious soul jazz and also swing mightily.
Musically, it is unfortunate that Ray Charles’s Georgia On My Mind is the commercial version with whining strings rather than one of the several live recordings by the big band now available. It is included, the notes tell us, because Charles was banned after refusing to sing in this segregationist state. Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang and Minstrel And Queen by The Impressions are pop-soul treatments of relevant material. Oscar Brown, Jr.’s superficially similar Work Song is a welcome contrast to their trivialization. “I committed the crime of being hungry and poor.” I do understand why Guy Carawan’s pop-folk hit version of We Shall Overcome has been selected to end the set rather than a musically worthwhile version. However, the choice for both opening and closing tracks of performances by white artists that no one with the remotest pretensions to taste would want to hear twice is oddly apposite.
This compilation is far too uneven to recommend on musical grounds alone. It may perhaps make some sort of sense as a souvenir of the exhibition but as a stand-alone concept album I can only pronounce it a failure.
2 CD SET: COUNT BASIE 1957 – 1962 “Live in Paris”. 40 tracks. Frémeaux & Associés FA5619. www.fremeaux.com
Count Basie’s band in the 1950’s was often known as the “New Testament”: his original big band, formed in 1936, being his “First Testament”. The key to the success of both testaments was twofold: firstly, a rock-solid flat-four rhythm section – classically, himself, Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green on guitar and Jo Jones on drums, said by many to be the finest rhythm section in jazz history; and secondly, the unusual combination (in the ‘30s, when he first used it) of two ‘split’ tenors in addition to alto and baritone in the sax section. The combination arose when Lester Young objected to Herschel Evans heavy vibrato in his ear, so Basie physically split them on either side of the alto – but then insisted they play duets or sometimes duels. The combination was later taken up by many other big bands, but it gave Basie a highly original sound, which he maintained throughout his 50-year career, though by the time of recordings on this double CD, there are three tenors in all. But the band’s heavy reliance on tenor soloists was one of the hallmarks of its success: they certainly predominate in all these concerts.
What we have here are a series of recordings made by the French radio station Europe-1 at the Olympia Theatre and the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, in 1957, 1960 and 1962. By this time, Basie was working in association with the second of his dedicated promoters, Norman Granz (the first being John Hammond), and was well into his collaboration with great arranger Neal Hefti, who also wrote much of the ‘book’ that defined the style and sound of the New Testament band. And with so many fine numbers from that book to cover, I can only select the very best to comment on.
The first CD opens with two Hefti tracks that are tours de force for two of the tenor players: Whirlybird (Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis) and Little Pony (Frank Foster), both of whom take extended solos of great fire and inventiveness. As with all Basie’s bands, the section work is superbly crisp and imaginative: it’s often been said that when he abandoned the use of ‘head’ arrangements and adopted written ones, he sacrificed some of the excitement and originality of the earlier groups: but the sheer professionalism and attack of the band here more than compensate for that. This is especially true of numbers like Corner Pocket and slower tunes such as Lovely Baby, which benefit from the contrasts and textures that were only possible with written arrangements, whoever was playing them – for although Basie had several semi-permanent stars in his ranks at this time, there were also so many changes in personnel, that reliance on ‘head’ arrangements couldn’t have coped with.
There are plenty of Basie standards on offer, including both signature tunes One-o-Clock Jump and April in Paris as well as Splanky, Lil’ Darlin’ and Toot Sweet. In the first concert, Nails features a beautifully structured bass solo from Eddie Jones, whilst Basie himself solos to great effect on The Kid from Red Bank, backed up by typically stabbing punctuations from both brass and saxes. The tracks from the second 1957 concert are three vocals by Joe Williams: Well, Alright, OK, You Win was one his favourites and is sung with characteristic punch, but the old Don Redman warhorse Gee, Baby Ain’t I Good to You is the stand-out number of this set, with vocalist and band in perfect balance, both musically and acoustically.
A concert from 1960 fills the second half of CD-1; “Lockjaw” Davis has left the band and been replaced by Billy Mitchell, and there are only three trumpets instead of four. It opens with a splendid version of Shiny Stockings: Thad Jones’ trumpet solo here is a model of high-flying and high-register be-bop that wouldn’t have disgraced Dizzy Gillespie, but never sounds out of place within the more mainstream arrangement. Jones composed the tune H.R.H., dedicated to Princess Margaret, who had enthusiastically sat through four hours of the Basie band in the Royal Festival Hall a few months earlier; this is an ensemble piece, which demonstrates just how well organized and together this band was. The liner notes give no clue as to who was responsible for arranging what, though I suspect Neal Hefti did many of them: of particular note is Makin’ Whoopee, a trombone feature for Quentin Jackson (I think – it sounds like him, but the announcement at the end is too indistinct to be sure), where the interplay between soloist and rhythm section is a finely balanced line of pure creative tension – terrific stuff. The band must have played In a Mellow Tone hundreds of times, but the performance here sounds as fresh and original as if it were their first. They also turn in a first-class version of Splanky, one of my personal favourites, and obviously one of the audience’s as well: they applaud its opening. Audible applause has, thankfully, been confined to the end of numbers thus far – how often in concert recordings is the entry to someone’s solo drowned out by applause for their predecessor? – but on this and the final track some of Basie’s short solo links between the solos are spoilt by the clapping. Hefti’s composition Segue in C closes out the CD, a number, which has a monumental swing to it and which, unusually, features a whole series of solos by tenor sax, trumpet and trombone (Henry Coker here, by the sound of it).
CD-2 seems to contain almost all of a May 1962 concert from the Olympia Theatre. It opens with an excellent up-tempo Hefti tune, Why Not, which has a lovely flute solo from Frank Wess (he also contributes an excellent solo later on to Toot Sweet), followed by a relaxed interpretation of the Benny Carter composition Easy Money, which features several fine solos, including by Thad Jones and Basie. The balance is generally very good throughout these recordings, though the rhythm section is especially prominent in the earlier ones; now, the piano is much to the fore and the guitar and bass are less in evidence (Green’s guitar is hardly audible at all on some tracks); fortunately, Eddie Jones’ bass solo on Mama’s Talking Soft is not spoilt by this. The piano also sounds more plangent, with a slightly tinny ring to it at times (perhaps a different instrument, or a different microphone being used?), and there’s more audience applause and echo on this recording, presumably deliberately to enhance the sense of atmosphere. I preferred the closer balance on the earlier recordings, which underlines the cohesiveness of the band better. In any case, the arrangements and general sound are more modern: Frank Foster’s Discomotion is a good example of this, his solo has more of the be-bop about it than his playing in the 1957 concerts, which is also true of Henry Coker’s trombone solo which follows. That’s not a criticism, by the way, merely an observation! One of the few instances where I felt the band got it wrong is their rendition of Jumpin’ at the Woodside, which they take at such a fast tempo that the section work loses definition and bite, though Frank Foster’s tenor solo is as exciting as they come. Another Foster composition, Easin’ It, is a showcase for some of Thad Jones’ best playing in this collection: controlled fire and tension with a tight mute that cuts right through the section work and swings perfectly. A reworked arrangement of Lil’ Darlin’ gives added texture and depth to this great Hefti tune, which includes a fine trumpet obbligato over the main theme – I’m not sure by whom, though this could well be Sonny Cohn. Joe Williams’ You’re Too Beautiful is a fine performance, though without a vocal but with Frank Foster in fine form on tenor. In fact, there’s only one vocal – by Irene Reid – in this set – The Blues – and several obvious vehicles for singers are straight instrumentals, including a modernistic version of April in Paris that’s hardly recognizable as the Vernon Duke classic it is, though none the worse for that! Whether by choice or happenstance, Basie was without a star vocalist on this occasion, but the result was a coruscating performance of Hammerstein and Kern’s The Song Is You and an equally seductively swinging rendition of Stella By Starlight, which is dominated by Thad Jones’ stinging virtuosity. Freddie Green is – at last – clearly to the fore on Cute, laying down a solid backing to Frank Wess on flute, who skylarks over the rhythm section before giving way to some fine light brush-work from drummer Sonny Payne. In his early years, Basie frequently featured the blues in his repertoire, but here, the only true blues are Nails, which is reprised in this concert as a duet by Basie with an extended and very fine solo by Eddie Jones on bass; followed by the blues on which Irene Reid sings, and does so to great effect: she really knows how to shout ‘em!
Because these concerts were also scheduled broadcasts, the sound quality is good, apart from the few shortcomings I’ve noted above, and they are easy to listen to as a result: no straining to hear who’s doing what. This is a band on top form and if you have nothing else by Basie on your shelves, this will represent him very well.
2 CD SET: DON BYAS, NEW YORK-PARIS 1938-1955. Fremeaux & Associates FA 5622. www.fremeaux.com
Don Byas was a near-ubiquitous presence on the flocks of 1940s “swing-to-bop” recordings made for small, independent labels—Jamboree, Continental, Savoy, Arista, Manor – the list goes much further. As this collection demonstrates, Byas was clearly a disciple of Coleman Hawkins and his recognition in the jazz world probably suffered because he sounded so much like the master. As a result, he is not well-known today.
The tenor saxophonist, who hailed from Oklahoma, made the customary round of territory bands until arriving in New York in 1937. His popularity in the Harlem jam sessions led to his first record a year later, a pickup date organized by Timmie Rosenkrantz, the eccentric Danish “jazz baron.” A Wee Bit of Swing, the only one of the four sides where he solos, show him already in Hawkins mode. Unfortunately even the baronial provenance didn’t help these discs sell (they are quite scarce today) so there were no subsequent sessions. Byas joined the Andy Kirk band and was invited by Decca to participate on the 1940 album of Kansas City Jazz where’s he’s teamed with Lips Page, who he will record with a few years later, on Lafayette, a small group reading of a Bennie Moten recording from eight years earlier. This tune is mother’s-milk to Byas who had some of his earliest jobs with KC groups.
His longest big-band affiliation was with Count Basie where he spent three years. This collection includes perhaps his best-known solo with the band, Harvard Blues – a low down groove with a blue blood lyric. The record was a big hit, which insured that many budding saxophonists would copy his brooding solo even into the 1950s.
The real meat of this collection begins in 1944 when Byas left Basie and became a freelance fixture in the 52nd Street clubs, frequently in the company of Slam Stewart’s bowing-singing bass. Here he’s on dates led by Cozy Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Slam Stewart, Oscar Pettiford, Hawkins, Page and, of course himself. Here’s he’s in full-blown Hawkins mode, though it is reasonably easy to tell them apart on Three Little Words, which they laid down for the short-lived Keynote label.
Selecting other highlights from this batch is nearly impossible because the standard of music is so high and Fremeaux does wonders coaxing good sound from 78s that were recorded with primitive wire-recorders and pressed on pottery shards (Manor and National in particular).
While Byas never fully absorbed bop, he was on one of the earliest sessions, a 1944 Manor date chaired by Gillespie. Be Bop from that session shows he can fit in without quite becoming one of the group. (Not sure why Good Bait was omitted, but it really contrasts Byas and Dizzy). Same with the Oscar Pettiford sides, including the frantic Something For You, made a year later, also for Manor. Stewart, whose singing bass playing was a brief vogue in the mid-40s is a ubiquitous presences in these sessions.
The second half of the collection is largely given over to ballads. Here Byas’ devotion to Hawkins does not do him any favors. Hawk was THE master with ballads (and he’d tell you himself) and Byas only invites continual comparison. His playing his excellent by almost any other standard but does not quite achieve the master’s depth on Laura, Blue and Sentimental and, of course, Body and Soul. One exception is Gone With the Wind, from the 1946 Victor session where’s he’s paired with Johnny Hodges. The playing on this is achingly beautiful with Byas absorbing some of Hodges’ famed lyricism.
In the latter 1940s, New York was a tough place for jazz musicians who weren’t fully in tune with bop, so Byas joined a growing roster of swing-era musicians who emigrated to Europe. He found work in Paris plentiful and recorded much more extensively than he did in his home country.
The 1947-55 Paris selections included here are mostly with just a rhythm section that’s perfectly adequate for the ballads, since he is the showcase. Again, the quality is uniformly high so it’s safe to say they are all highlights. One interesting choice is Remember My Forgotten Man, a Depression-era dirge that most jazz musicians …uh… forgot... but it’s a song he gives new life to here.
This collection is especially welcome because a great many of these mid-40s sessions either have been unreissued, or reissued in such scatter-shot fashion that the music is buried almost as soon as it is offered. This collection is by no means complete and one hopes it sells enough that Fremeaux will do another Byas set, but what we have here will help renew Byas’ reputation and gives us seldom-heard magnificent jazz.
3 CD SET: The Indispensable B.B. King 1949-1962. Fremeaux & Associés FA 5414. www.fremeaux.com
When B.B. King died in May, 2015 he was undoubtedly the most famous blues artist in the world - an ambassador both for the music and the USA, rather like Louis Armstrong had been. He’d been a DJ in post-war Memphis, the leader of a hugely popular touring band that played more than three hundred dates a year on the chitlin’ circuit and the master of a guitar style which had a transforming influence on popular music. It was his “disciples” – Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam - those adaptors of his declamatory vocal style and the single note intensities of his guitar solos, who shaped not only the sound of “west side” Chicago blues but also that of rock/blues artists like Eric Clapton, and Peter Green. I vividly recall King’s thrilling first UK performance in 1969, where he shared top billing with Fleetwood Mac, riding high on the success of their single, Albatross. It was his “showmanship”, his ability to read the audience that was so striking: – he “broke “a guitar string, retuned and kept playing; he chose songs that appealed to the range of the audience, from blues and jazz aficionados to the hippie fans of the Mac and guitar hero Peter Green. Above all, it was the sincerity and passion of his performance (and his personal charm) that made its mark. This thoughtfully chosen and annotated selection of 67 sides chart King’s early years and includes his greatest hits as well as records that show how he and his producers (primarily the Bihari brothers) sought to tailor his music to fashionable trends - from Louis Jordan style jump numbers to the mambo beat of Woke Up This Morning, or the ballad crooning of You Know I Love You.
What is so striking about these records is King’s suave adaptability. His signature style - the emotionally charged, gospel inflected vocal in dialogue with and echoed by guitar phrases, the band riffing behind him - defines his first big hit, the slow 3 O’ Clock Blues and the great, It’s My Own Fault and Sweet Little Angel, which became mainstays of his live performances for the rest of his life. There were a host of others, including favourites of mine like Someday, Somewhere, Why Did You Leave? and Ten Long Years (the latter two inspiring Buddy Guy’s Ten Years Ago). But as befits a one-time DJ, BB was always alert to popular trends in African- American music. Thus his first recordings for Bullet in 1949, Miss Martha King and Take A Swing With Me, showcase BB King the blues-shouter, in the manner of Roy Brown and Joe Turner, accompanied by horns and the splendid piano playing of Phineas Newborn Jr., and brother Calvin on guitar ( their father Phineas Sr., played drums). The brothers shine on titles like BB. Boogie and the very fine Walkin’ and Crying.
When in 1951 B.B. takes on guitar duties himself ,he demonstrates a style shaped by listening to his acknowledged masters, T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson , Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and a taste for both jump blues numbers like She’s Dynamite (a cover of a contemporary Tampa Red hit) and the dance number Shake It Up And Go (which looks back to Tommy McClennan and Blind Boy Fuller) as well as mellow, Charles Brown - influenced songs like Please Help Me.
He also reveals an openness to rawer sounds such as the delta slide playing of Elmore James which he echoes on Please Love Me and in complete contrast, a real talent for sentimental ballads like I’ll Survive, On My Word of Honour (echoes here of Jackie Wilson) and Please Accept My Love which featured on the play list for the rest of his career.
It’s the power and breadth of King’s music at its best that strikes me: his responsiveness to what he heard. He covers songs like Lowell Fulson’s 3 O’clock In The Morning, Walter Davis’s melancholy Come Back Baby ( as Can’t We Talk It Over) , Sonny Boy Williamson’s splendid My Heart Beats Like A Hammer and one of the great Tampa Red songs Crying Won’t Help You, and transforms them into something uniquely his own. As you listen to these records, you realise how alert BB was to changing musical tastes and audiences – it was always a key factor in his success. Thus, in 1960 he records a great session (one of my favourites) where without horns, but with voice and guitar and Lloyd Glenn’s masterly piano to the fore, he produces not only It’s My Own Fault, but also You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now (and Hold That Train and Walkin’ Dr. Bill). Issued in the UK on the cut-price Ember label, it was my introduction to BB’s music and thus shaped the expectations I took to that 1969 gig at the Albert Hall.
By 1962 soul music and Tamla Motown records were becoming the chosen popular music of young African-Americans, although King could still command an enthusiastic and dedicated black audience as his classic “Live at The Regal” album testifies. Nonetheless, from the late 1960s onwards, and especially after he achieved his greatest hit with the wonderful The Thrill Is Gone in 1969, King’s prime audience became increasingly international, and I suspect that this expertly remastered (by VJM ‘regular’ Nick Dellow) and annotated collection of some of his finest early records will find its market there. If you don’t already have them, buy this and enjoy listening to the King.
2 CD SETS: Four Classic Albums. (Four 2 x CD collections from Avid Group) Lightnin Hopkins (1225), John Lee Hooker (1208), Lonnie Johnson (1207), B.B. King (1203). Avid Group www.avidgroup.co.uk
Another grouping from Avid which combines four albums from the 1950s and 1960s into two CD collections, offering the original liner notes and discographical information in the accompanying booklet in an otherwise no-frills setting.
The Lightnin Hopkins set includes a session from the mid-1950s (for Shad/Time, I believe) and 1960s (with electric guitar and piano) for Fire and others. The notes include a long piece by Texas blues researcher Mack McCormack, and the great jazz writer Nat Hentoff.
The John Lee Hooker set, consisting of Modern/Crown and Vee Jay albums, is drawn from his earliest commercial works (Modern leased from Sensation, a local Detroit label that first recorded “The Hook”) and to the mid/late 1950s.
The Lonnie Johnson sides are from the mid-1960s when he was recording for Bluesville, which include an eclectic mix of pop-oriented material (unlike the others, Lonnie Johnson had a lengthy career in pop music after his blues career) and blues.
The B.B. King collections features his early signature tunes when he was still riding the southern chitterlin’ circuit and blaring on juke joint juke boxes. These all come from the RPM/Crown albums reissued in the latter 1960s.
Avid’s concept of packaging four classic LPs into a budget package (£7 for 2 CDs) is a great idea. The music is well-known and beyond comment here. The one argument I do have with these collections is that four LPs do not always fit onto 2 CDs so some tracks are subjected to an impatient fade out to make them fit. On the Hopkins set, for example, Till the Gin Gets Here has a playing time of 1:03. To their credit, the producers generally practiced their slash and burn on the lest interesting tracks but perhaps they could have abridged the set a bit by leaving off a few songs and sparing the fade outs.
Still they’re good listening.
CD: LOUIS ARMSTRONG “Live in Paris- April 24 1962”. 19 tracks. Frémeaux & Associés FA5612. www.fremeaux.com
The liner notes for this CD – another in the ‘Live in Paris’ series – rhapsodise about Armstrong’s love affair with the French capital, dating from the months he spent there from September 1934 to February 1935. He would walk his dog through the streets, “completely adopting the French way of life”. He apparently loved the bistros of Pigalle and was worshipped by Parisian admirers, unknown and illustrious alike. Strange, then, and perhaps sad, that it wasn’t till 1998, long after his death, that Paris named a square after him. Or, indeed, that when he returned to Paris in 1948, he received anonymous threats and had to have a police escort. He did visit the city several times in the 50s and 60s, and this 1962 concert, recorded in the Olympia Theatre by the radio station Europe-1 (as were the Basie concerts also reviewed in this issue) was one of his last. As the liner notes candidly admit, by this time in his career, Armstrong’s repertoire didn’t change from year to year, and so the material on this CD – or much of it – will be familiar to many.
The All-Stars will likewise be well-known: Trummy Young, Joe Darensbourg, Billy Kyle, Bill Cronk and Danny Barcelona; and the concert opens, as usual, with a largely vocal version of Sleepy Time Down South. Indiana follows, at a spanking pace, with some excellent piano and bass solo work and an Armstrong solo that, unlike many at this period, is both fluent and not a carbon copy of one he’d played several times before…a pity, though, that too much of Joe Darensbourg’s contribution that comes next is drowned out by the wild applause for the leader. Inevitably, though, this happens at concerts, and it’s a difficult choice for the recording engineers, to decide how much atmosphere to mike up; listening some 40+ years later, a bit less would have been welcome. In any case, Darensbourg and Young both get a chance to give good account of themselves on Bucket’s Got a Hole in It, but of the track after that, Tiger Rag, the less said the better…”crowd-pleasing tear-up” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Above all else, it was performances like these that cemented the rift between Armstrong and the modernists, who couldn’t take his entertainment-cum-clowning approach to his music, which they felt devalued their art. No surprise, then, that he was often referred to as a ‘dinosaur’ by the jazz magazines of the time. It was not, of course, that other musicians of his generation didn’t memorise a good solo and trot it out time and again, but, I suppose, that before the era of ‘live’ broadcast concerts and jazz on film, radio and TV, the public and the critics were less aware of it. In Armstrong’s case, the public don’t seem to have cared a hoot, but the critics and some other musicians took umbrage. For myself, a good solo is always a good solo, but I do feel that Armstrong too often allowed showmanship to obscure his music, and this is true on several tracks here. Now You has Jazz and High Society (the film tune) are fine if you like these vocal numbers anyway, but from a musical point of view, they’re forgettable as far as I’m concerned. Of course, I might have felt different if I’d been at the concert…but I don’t think they’ve stood the test of time and place. Ole Miss Rag restores a sense of jazz normality and is not taken at such a fast tempo as to render the solos incoherent. And on When I Grow Too Old to Dream Billy Kyle gets the chance to play some quite superb piano over a whole series of choruses, demonstrating his ability to sound at one moment like Oscar Peterson, at another like a Harlem-strider, but always in fiery control of his instrument: a real pleasure to listen to, over and again! Trummy Young is the star of Tin Roof Blues, growling like a latter-day ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton in the ensembles, shouting the blues as well as JC Higginbotham ever did in his solo…a fine performance indeed. Joe Darensbourg takes his solo spot on Yellow Dog Blues, showing both originality but also his natural affinity with the swoops and trills of Jimmy Noone; he contributes a rather more conventional solo to The Saints, which is, well, The Saints, though mercifully not at 100 mph.
The second half of the concert opens with a rather run-of-the-mill version of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, taken at a leisurely pace, which has nothing of the fire and tension of the original and, although there are some interesting moments in the solos, the impression is very much a of a band playing something they’ve played too many times before. The same is true of The Faithful Hussar, of which I can only say that it’s competently performed but hardly exciting, though Darensbourg gives us another taste of his admiration for Noone. Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Blueberry Hill are Armstrong vocal features, the latter a big hit for him in the Hello Dolly! mould, so if you like Armstrong vocals, you’ll love these: the audience at the Olympia clearly did…
Singer Jewel Brown guests on one track, St Louis Blues: she has a good voice, uses it well and swings, but there’s little blues feeling here, until she gets into her stride towards the end of the number. As too often in Armstrong’s later years, After You’ve Gone is taken at breakneck speed, which fails to bring out the essential character of the melody and forces the soloists to snatch at their phrasing, sounding breathless rather than in control of what they’re playing. This is, of course, the kind of spirited rendition, which delights ‘live’ audiences, but which hardly stands repeated listening. The CD closes with another vocal favourite, Mack the Knife, which Armstrong recorded in 1955 and featured in his repertoire ever after.
In spite of all, there are some fine and exciting moments on this CD, though many – if not most – of them are provided by the rest of the band rather than Armstrong himself. He was, as ever, having to be careful of his lip, which, apart from the favour it found with many in his audiences, no doubt accounts for his preference for singing rather than firing off stratospheric solos. The voice took less punishment. In sum, this is one for the motorway rather than the music-room.