Joe Louis Walker raises "Hellfire"

Friday, 03 February 2012 12:00 AM Written by

518JUktlQZL._SL500_AA300_We've got two fine new albums in hand this week, from excellent artists at the opposite ends of the blues spectrum.

We'll take Joe Louis Walker today, and leave Ruthie Foster for another day.

Walker's latest CD, his 23rd, is titled "Hellfire" (Alligator), and that's actually a pretty good description. Walker has his roots in the 1960s music scene of San Francisco, where he was born.

By his mid-teens, Walker was playing guitar in Frisco clubs, working with artists from Lightnin' Hopkins to Jimi Hendrix, but his time spent as roommate to legendary blues-rocker Michael Bloomfield seems to have shaped his music more profoundly.

You can hear the blues in Walker's music, but stylistically, he's everywhere -- from country to gospel to rock to blues. That's not always a strong point for an artist, but it works for Walker. "Hellfire" is an eclectic blend of sounds from Hendrix to Hank Snow, but it's all filtered through Walker's own musical sensibilities. He sings with grit and emotional intensity, just the way he plays guitar -- no-nonsense, tough and crisp. And that carries through everything here, from rock to gospel.

You can hear a little '60s distortion on the hard-driving title track, and entire CD feels almost live, which it almost was, having been recorded in two days with minimal overdubs.

Some of my favorite tracks are the the raucous "Ride All Night," a searing and soulful "What It's Worth," an ode to the soulful black girl singers called "Black Girl," and a very tough cover of Hank Snow's classic "Movin' On."

Walker offers and extended and rousing blues-gospel track -- "Soldier For Jesus" -- back by the Jordanaires, the same group that sometimes made Elvis sound even better.

"Hellfire" was produced by Tom Hambridge, who has done some of Buddy Guy's recent CDs, and he produces just the touch here to showcase the talents of Joe Louis Walker. This is an excellent album of contemporary blues music, demonstrating how you can have your roots and your modern cake as well.

Here's a slightly rough live version of the title track, "Hellfire" -

A joyous boogie 'n' blues piano fest

Wednesday, 01 February 2012 12:00 AM Written by
That's boogieman Bob Seeley, at 83, making his move off the keyboard. (All photos by Jim White)

If I can be permitted to use the word that once got me in trouble with Candye Kane, it was a "raucous" night of piano blues and boogie Saturday night, as we ventured out from the BlueNotes Winter Headquarters for some fine music.

I know that some of you were on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise and couldn't make it here -- but the rest of you? I'll just have to console myself where the sun does shine.

But I digress.

Bob Seeley still going strong at 83. 
Blues and boogie woogie piano have always made the feet dance and the mind go happy, so this concert -- and the three previous ones I've seen -- have been a special pleasure. They are the brainchild of St. Petersburg boogie piano queen Liz Pennock (Ohio native), who keeps finding great piano talent for the show.

A feature of every concert has been Bob Seeley, one of the last (maybe the last) of the great boogie and stride piano masters such as Meade Lux Lewis (Seeley's mentor and inspiration), Pete Johnson, Joe Turner and Albert Ammons. He's a vigorous, elfin little dude at 83, always dapper with snappy headgear, and best of all, the piano styles of about 75 years in his fingertips. This year, in the concert finale, he seemed intent on showing off his dance moves.

Craig Brenner, Indiana's finest.
Highlights of his playing included "St. Louis Blues" in a variety of dazzling styles, and an eloquent rendering of "Amazing Grace," using New Orleans funeral parade rhythms. It was truly amazing.

The first special guest of the show was Craig Brenner, out of Bloomington, Indiana, who rolled the ivories (and the black keys as well) with a fine version of "Goin' Down Slow."

He paid tribute to the late, great Big Joe Duskin who wound up in Cincinnatti, did a worthy version of "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" and a wonderfully styled take on Professor Longhair's "Meet Me Tomorrow Night." He wound up with a rollicking tribute to his hometown -- "Bloomington Boogie."

The headliner for the night was young (35 is young, isn't it?) Michael Kaeshammer, a German native turned Canadian, eh, who obviously needs a blues nickname like Mike the Hammer.

Michael Kaeshammer, playing the piano outside the box.

He started out with a nameless slow-rolling blues instrumental, using a foot stomp to highlight the beat, which turned into a startingly sensual mood piece that didn't require a single word to convey its raunchy blues message. Very impressive. And it was all uphill after that.

He offered a very distinctive take on Longhair's "Mardi Gra in New Orleans," complete with whistling and a few tricks that Fess hadn't thought of. He offered a strong semi-original, inspired by James Booker, the mad genius of New Orleans piano, which made me wish I'd saved the Booker albums I once had.

Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues
He even tackled a silly but sly little blues from Joe Duskin, titled "My Little Kangaroo Girl" -- definitely worth a listen if you can find it. On one extended jam, Kaeshammer left the keyboard to beat out the ryythms on every surface he could find around the piano -- a fun and inventive touch.

And I don't want to ignore Ms. Pennock, who opened the night with a set in her own rocking style, and included an original, "Play My Piano," inspired by an encounter with Pinetop Perkins, who made that sly offer to Liz after she and husband Dr. Blues (guitarist Paul Shambarger) gave Pinetop a ride to a concert gig. The couple are regulars in St. Pete, and travel annually to Cincinnatti for that city's blues piano festival.

Yes, it was a fine night of piano music. Held at the Palladium Theater in St. Pete, a small but beautiful concert venue, it seems to get better every year. You should be here for the next one.

The Global Jukebox revisited

Tuesday, 31 January 2012 12:00 AM Written by

Here's a New York Times story on the Global Jukebox project, basen on Alan Lomax's work, that I wrote about the other day.

They've written a better piece than we had here, but hey, we had it first. Although they do have a cool multimedia presentation.

Some blues 'n' boogie piano

Saturday, 28 January 2012 12:00 AM Written by

If any of my faithful readers (okay, I don't care - even unfaithful ones) happen to be in the St. Petersburg Florida, area tonight, I recommend the Blues Piano Stomp at the Palladium Theater.

This will be its fourth year, and I've been to all of them, and you can't beat these shows for great boogie-woogie and blues piano.

They all feature as their high point, Bob Seeley, 83, a Boogie Woogie Piano Hall of Famer out of Detroit, who earned his considerable chops with Meade Lux Lewis, played with Art Tatum and Eubie Blake and was an accompanist for Sippie Wallace.

This year's special guests are Craig Brenner, out of Bloomington, Ind., and Michael Kaeshammer from Canada, both preceded by fine reps as outstanding pianomen with strong blues and boogie leanings.

The hosts for the show, as they have been for all the seessions, are St. Pete's Liz Pennock and husband Paul "Dr. Blues" Shambarger. Both are Ohio natives, if that helps get you here.

So c'mon down. The weather's fine and the music will be finer.

A little more about the women of early R&B

Thursday, 26 January 2012 12:00 AM Written by

When I wrote last Saturday about the death of R&B superstar Etta James, I mentioned that I had been listening to her first records at about the same time that two other women were rolling out the R&B hits.

Both LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown were about 10 years older than James, but they all hit the charts with a lot of music at roughly the same time in the 1950s. It all seemed to suit the pre-BlueNotes me just right.

There was still much great blues being performed, doo-wop was going strong, and jump blues was shifting into R&B (named by Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records partner), which was taking no prisoners with some fine singers, including James, Brown and Baker. Two if my favorite albums from those days were Atlantic R&B compilations -- "The Greatest Rock and Roll" and "Rock and Roll Forever." I suppose they might have been trying to avoid the racial implications of R&B in calling this music rock 'n' roll, but it was some of the best R&B of its day (or any day), even as it was slipping and sliding into R&R.

But back to Baker and Brown. Baker's first Atlantic hit was "Tweedle Dee" in 1955, and its bouncy rhythms combined with a slight Latin flavor was more than enough to catch my ear. Not to mention those profound lyrics (they were great for singing along). Georgia Gibbs came along with the whitebread version, which which wouldn't have been all that bad if you had never heard LaVern sing it.

Baker added a series of hits after that -- including "Bop-Ting-A-Ling" (another lyrical masterpiece!),  "Play It Fair" , and "Still" . At the end of 1956 she had another smash hit with "Jim Dandy" (a personal favorite, for obvious reasons), which turned into a gold record when gold records still meant something, then "Jim Dandy Got Married" and  "I Cried a Tear."

That's just a small sample of her output, even though she took 22 years off, from 1966 to 1988, after an illness and spent those years as the entertainment director at the Marine Corps Staff NCO club at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Phillippines, where she had been hospitalized after a trip to Vietnam.

Baker's style was tough and gritty, and that came through even in the nonsense of a song like "Jim Dandy." But it really came though in stronger material, like the earthy duet she recorded with Jackie Wilson in 1966, "Think Twice," in which the singers push each other higher for a stunning little gem of a song. Interestingly, they recorded another version of the tune in which they pushed each other to heights of raunchy lyrics that couldn't be played on the air then, or now.

Ruth Brown's music was equally popular then, with bouncy and infectious lyrics combined with a tough vocal style that lent a sensual quality to what could have been just ordinary material.

She had a series of hits in the '50s that earned her the nickname "the queen of R&B." Her strong work for Atlantic -- on the Billboard R&B chart for 149 weeks from 1949 to 1955, with 16 records in the top ten, and five No. 1 hits.

There were songs like "So Long", "Teardrops from My Eyes" and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean." Others included "5-10-15 Hours," "Oh What a Dream,"  "Mambo Baby," and "Don't Deceive Me."

Like Baker, Brown also dropped out of recording in the 1960s, but re-emerged in the mid-70s and returned to performing, plus worked on the stage and in a few movies.

These three R&B stars did a lot to shape my musical tastes way back when, as I'm sure they did for others. Here are some videos (and audios) of their work that I especially enjoy. I hope you do too.

The first big one - "Tweedle Dee"

A more recent "Tomorrow Night"

The Jackie Wilson duet - "Think Twice"

"Think Twice," adult version - seriously

My namesake - "Jim Dandy"

Ruth Brown - "He Treats Your Daughter Mean"

Ruth Brown - "Teardrops From My Eyes"

Ruth Brown - "5-1015 Hours"

Ruth Brown, BB King, in a more contemporary mode



Etta James dies at 73; created great music on her own terms

Saturday, 21 January 2012 12:00 AM Written by

ettaEtta James died yesterday, taking with her another little bit of American musical history. She followed Johnny Otis, the  man who made her musical career a reality, who died Tuesday. James was 73.

I have a special fondness for Etta James because she was one of those singers working in blues and R&B in the 1950s who drew my young self into a musical style as alien to my background then as good cigars and smooth whiskey (how times do change!).

Most James fans will tell you they are hooked on her stunning renditions of great pop ballads like "At Last," or a blues classic like "I'd Rather Go Blind." And those are great songs, sung by a legendary stylist. No question. I love them, too. She used her voice to blend blues and R&B and gospel and pop and bend the boundaries between genres as few others had done.

But to me, Etta James is "Roll With Me Henry," released in 1955 as the "answer song" to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' powerfully raunchy "Work With Me Annie." The primal rhythms and lyrics of those songs (pretty much identical melodies) made my teenage hormones dance with feverish  joy, even if my feet took a few years to catch up. I was hooked (and many years later, BlueNotes emerged, full-grown, sort of, from that primordial musical soup).

I always put her in the same exalted category of some other fine female R&B singers of the era who moved me, including Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker.

"Henry," renamed "Dance With Me Henry" to avoid too many salacious overtones (alas, Georgia Gibbs had the whitebread hit with "Dance With Me Henry"), was her first recording, engineered by Otis while James was in her mid-teens. When I saw her in a show at the Byham Theater about eight years ago, she talked about getting her start with Otis as a nervous teenager, but refused, as she apparently had for years, to sing "Henry" again. My loss.

But that night, she still managed, despite sitting down and recuperating from some surgeries, to sing the hell out of every other song she chose.

Etta had a tough childhood. She never knew who her father was. I was fascinated by one brief mention on Wikipedia, in which she thought her father might have been the legendary Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone. I looked up that reference, and found this interview by Denise Quan from 2002, which said in part:

Dorothy Hawkins (Etta's mother) died this past May. But she outlived the man rumored to be James' father -- the enigmatic pool shark, Minnesota Fats. James met him once, in 1987, when she tracked him to the Heritage Hotel in Nashville and rang his room.

"He says, 'I'll be in the lobby,' " she says, pronouncing lobby as 'laahhhhby.' "He talked like that. 'I'll be in the lobby with one of my dames.' He had a vibe like me. As far as me knowing that's my father? I don't know. But he seemed like he was.

"When he passed, he sent me a beautiful golden watch that hung on his clothes that had his name on it. And he sent me a letter, and told me that he wanted me to write a song about him and stuff, which I never did. But I often thought about that."

James looks down wistfully at her hands. Despite a perfect French manicure, they're large, masculine hands -- just like those of Minnesota Fats. Then her head snaps back up. "Oh! And he gave us a picture - and the picture looked just like Donto, my oldest son. It was just like Donto."

Etta James was a trailblazer; a magnificent voice in a world full of pale imitations. At least her music remains.

Here are a few articles to read: From Rolling Stone, from the New York Times, the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, here are some audio and video memories:

"Roll With Me Henry":

Another personal favorite - I think it's amazing:

Another early rocker:

You all have most likely been treated to "At Last" too often by now, so here's a fine duet version of "I'd Rather Go Blind" with Dr. John:



By now, many of you probably know that the legendary R&B musician Johnny Otis died Tuesday at the age of 90.

(As some comments have noted, R&B great Etta James, a Johnny Otis discovery)  died earlier today. I'll post on her life tomorrow.)

Sadly, the word legendary barely fits his massive achievements, and "musician" is an very inadequate word to describe this singer, songwriter, bandleader, producer and discoverer of a huge roster of R&B talent.

Here's a paragrpah from his New York Times obituary that capsules his 1940s work that established him as a force in the music business:

Leading a band in the late 1940s that combined the high musical standards of big-band jazz with the raw urgency of gospel music and the blues, Mr. Otis played a key role in creating a new sound for a new audience of young urban blacks, a sound that within a few years would form the foundation of rock ’n’ roll.

Here's another obituary from the LA Times that's filled with good information. Otis was a West Coast musician who started out playing drums in the 1940s. He was Greek, but he always declared himself "black by persuasion."

Otis is probably most easily recognized as the creator of "Willie and the Hand Jive," but his musical production went far beyond that, and his influence, even further. Without Otis and his discoveries, a lot of the music we know might be very different.

If his music wasn't enough, the artisits he brought to the stage and the recording studio created another massive legacy. Here are some of the musical greats we can thank Johnny Otis for finding (thanks to the Bob Corritore newsletter for this list):  

Esther Phillips, Willie Mae "Big Momma" Thornton, Etta James, and the Robins (who evolved into the Coasters), all of whom were at one time featured vocalists in his band. He also discovered Sugar Pie DeSanto, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, and Little Willie John. He produced, and with his band played on the original recording of "Hound Dog" with "Big Momma" Thornton. He produced and played on Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love", and produced some of Little Richard's earliest recordings. On his own Blues Spectrum label, Johnny has recorded and played with Rhythm & Blues pioneers such as Big Joe Turner, Gatemouth Moore, Amos Milburn, Richard Berry, Joe Liggins, Roy Milton, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Charles Brown, and Louis Jordan. Johnny played the drums on Charles Brown's first major hit "Driftin' Blues" in 1946. He also recorded with Illinois Jacquet, and Lester Young. One of the many highlights of his long career was when he performed as a drummer with the great Count Basie Orchestra.

In his later years, Otis became a pastor in his own church, worked as a community activist, wrote books, worked in local politics, became a wine producer and once marketed Johnny Otis Apple Juice.

But it was music that satisfied his soul -- and ours. We're all the better for it.

Here are some videos that give an idea of his work:

Esther Phillips with the Johnny Otis Band:

With Roy Buchanan:

The Johnny Otis Show (28 mins)

The Global Jukebox -- A look at music history

Wednesday, 18 January 2012 12:00 AM Written by

I've mentioned it before, but I think it's time to mention it again -- a project called the Global Jukebox, created from the archives of the work of Alan Lomax, who spent his life collecting and recording music from around the world, and which included important work in the field of blues music.

(Note: The Wikipedia links in this post may not work today, as Wikipedia and other web sites are shutting down for a day to protest anti-piracy legislation before Congress. So don't blame  BlueNotes.)

The Global Jukebox has been set up an independent music label to make some of this music available to the public, and not just to scholars or special interests.

I mentioned this a year or so ago, in connection with the launch of the first Jukebox series, "Southern Journey," the first stereo field recordings made of traditional music in the American South. The albums that were part of this release included "Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea"; "Worried Now, Won't Be Worried Long"; "I'll Meet You On That Other Shore"; "I'll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down"; and "I'm Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die."

51GyJ0ix6lL._SL500_AA280_Then last August, in a release that we failed to mention here, Jukebox issued more landmark material, this time the early work of Mississippi Fred McDowell, titled "Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings." These were recorded while Lomax was recording a neighbor of McDowell's in Como, Miss., in 1959. Thus, he was still just Fred McDowell, and not yet "Mississippi." He was  raw and powerful, and the music hints at the master he would become. The tracks are:

1. “Shake ‘Em on Down”
2. “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”
3. “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”
4. “Fred McDowell’s Blues”
5. “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus”
6. “Drop Down Mama”
7. “Going Down to the River”
8. “Wished I Was in Heaven Sitting Down”
9. “When the Train Comes Along”
10. “When You Get Home Please Write Me a Few
of Your Lines”
11. “Worried Mind Blues”
12. “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”
(Instrumental Reprise)

This album is available both as a digital download from Global Jukebox, and as an LP through Mississippi Records-Domino Sound.

61FKYsKC6vL._SL500_AA300_Then, late last year, the Jukebox issued another set of music from the Georgia Sea Island Singers, a popular folk group in the '60s and '70s.  This release, "Join the Band," is a collection of their first stereo recordings, made by Lomax in 1950 and 1960. They are a glorious set of gospel, hymns and secular material. These tracks are:

1. You Better Mind – Bessie Jones and
2. O Death – Bessie Jones
3. O Day – Bessie Jones and GSIS
4. Buzzard Lope – Bessie Jones and GSIS
5. Turkle Dove – Bessie Jones and GSIS
6. Adam In The Garden – Willis Proctor and
7. Sink ‘Em Low – Bessie Jones and GSIS
8. Sometime – Bessie Jones and an
unidentified woman
9. See Aunt Dinah – Bessie Jones and GSIS
10. Beulah Land – John Davis, Bessie Jones,
11. Prayer – John Davis and GSIS
12. Sign of Judgment – Henry Morrison,
Bessie Jones, GSIS
13. Join the Band – John Davis, Willis
Proctor, GSIS
14. Hop Along, Let’s Get Her – Henry
Morrison, John Davis, GSIS
15. Go to Sleepy Little Baby – Bessie Jones
16. Before This Time Another Year – Bessie
Jones and GSIS

This album also is available as a digital download from Global Jukebox, and an LP through Mississippi Records-Domino Sound. You can also find them on Amazon.

These recordings, whether they touch on blues history or not, are unique pieces of American musical treasure. Lomax spent his life documenting these treasures, and now the Global Jukebox will make the music availble on a scale never imagined at the time it was recorded. 

Here's a McDowell recording from his first session:

Here are the Sea Island Singers from their recording:

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