This Week in Blues History for April 15th

When it made its debut last month, “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts, Vol. 1” was the #1 NEW RELEASE in Music History & Criticism and also Music Reference — the first new book from from ethnomusicologist, author, historian, and independent radio producer Steve Franz in more than 16 years. Now available in the Amazon Kindle Store  and at Barnes & Noble.


“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time we profile Lightnin’ Hopkins, who, in 1954, laid down some hard rocking blues for Herald Records.

 

This Week in Blues History for April 8th

When it made its debut last month, “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts, Vol. 1” was the #1 NEW RELEASE in Music History & Criticism and also Music Reference — the first new book from from ethnomusicologist, author, historian, and independent radio producer Steve Franz in more than 16 years. Now available in the Amazon Kindle Store  and at Barnes & Noble.


“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time, we profile Etta James, who landed at the top of the Billboard R&B charts this week in 1955, with “The Wallflower.”

This Week in Blues History for April 1st

When it made its debut last month, “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts, Vol. 1” was the #1 NEW RELEASE in Music History & Criticism and also Music Reference — the first new book from from ethnomusicologist, author, historian, and independent radio producer Steve Franz in more than 16 years. Now available in the Amazon Kindle Store  and at Barnes & Noble.

“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time, we profile a handful of rare recordings from Big Joe Williams that became one of the few remaining legacies of post-war St. Louis blues.

Pictured: Early publicity shot of Mississippi blues legend Big Joe Williams.

 

This Week in Blues History for March 24th

When it debuted earlier this month, “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts, Vol. 1” was the #1 NEW RELEASE in Music History & Criticism and also Music Reference — the first new book from from ethnomusicologist, author, historian, and independent radio producer Steve Franz in more than 16 years. Now available in the Amazon Kindle Store  and at Barnes & Noble.


“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time, we profile guitarists Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, who made a handful of titles for Paramount in 1930 — the details of which would not be revealed until almost a century later.

 

Image from the collection of John Tefteller/Blues Images.

“This Week in Blues History” is available commercial free to our Bandcamp subscribers! More info — including how to get instant access to more than 150 episodes of Blues Unlimited — that’s over 300 hours worth of entertainment — is available at our Bandcamp page.

Happy Birthday to Son House!

In honor of the birthday of Son House today, we asked Paul Vernon, founder of the “The Real Blues Forum,” if we could re-post this excerpt from his autobiography, Last Swill and Testament (which we highly recommend by the way!). It is an experience, we imagine, that many blues lovers wished they could have had. We hope you enjoy it….


The 100 Club night I recall most vividly was the one on the final day of June 1970 when Son House played to a room more packed and sweaty than I had ever sweltered in before. My previous experience of seeing him live, at Hammersmith in 1967, had been frustrated by my distance from him and his lack of onstage time. On this evening I bought three pints immediately and commandeered a table at the very front of the stage. I had a sturdy bladder in those days. No tarty pre-gig flitting from conversation to conversation for this lad tonight, Son was serious stuff, and I was staking out my territory. I was joined by a couple of regulars, Tony Trent (‘ere, mate, have you ever paused to consider the life of a trainee proctologist?…) and Ray Bolden (“good evening, wankers”), but that night, as far as I was concerned, it was just Son and me.

He was 62 by the time he was rediscovered, and this was almost six years beyond that. We might reasonably have expected him to coast a little. Frankly, he could have just broken wind and left again and I’d still have applauded him simply for being Son House, with all that that meant. Here was the man who played and knocked around with Charley Patton and Willie Brown; here was the man Muddy Waters stood in awe of and was prepared to say so; here was the man who had set foot in the Paramount studios way before most of his audience was born and created a small body of music so powerful that it continues to reverberate throughout the Blues today. Here, in a nutshell, was a pure source of the Blues, a surviving essence. I was sitting six worshipful feet from him.

He clambered slowly onto the stage, taking his time getting seated, and then somebody handed him his guitar, the beat up old National that you see in all the photos and film. With a benign, quizzical smile he looked around him at a sea of expectant, largely white, faces, an audience he had grown used to in his new career. He began to talk and as he did so the buzz from the crowd fell away, shepherded by a shushing that began at the front.

He talked quietly, gently, like a benign grandfather addressing his many offspring on matters of importance. His manner was sweet and retiring, almost shy. He rambled some, but it didn’t matter -this was Son House. Then, having finished what he had to say about the Blues not being about jumping a rabbit and running him a solid mile, but about a man and a woman in love, he struck a chord on his guitar as if to wake it and took off into “Death Letter Blues”, his audience now only a fog as his deep sense of the Blues suddenly and completely overtook him.

He became a different person when he sang and he did it immediately. There was no gentle transition from the quiet speaker to the man possessed by his subject, it was as sudden as a door slammed shut. His whole body moved with the music, he and his guitar inseparable. His eyes were closed and he just wasn’t with us any more, nor was he singing for us. He was somewhere else in his life, singing to himself and for himself, in the deepest recesses of his being. We were simply observers of the complete baring of a soul.

This was not entertainment in the way that J B Hutto or Lightnin’ Slim were. Watching Son House sing the Blues you had to witness it for what it was, a private catharsis made public. When he finished singing he seemed to come out of a trance, a look of surprise on his face. “Oh, yes, I’m back here, of course”. For several minutes he had spiritually left the building, leaving his body to transmit to us, via remote broadcast, what he was experiencing. When he returned, he was exhausted, as if he had just completed a long and arduous journey, which indeed he had.

Then he would do it all again for “Empire State Express” or “Preaching the Blues”. He was the most extraordinarily deep Blues man I ever experienced. Electrifying, in a real sense – being in Son’s presence while he sang made me tingle, it sent involuntary shivers through my body and tears welled in my eyes, as they still do when I visit his recorded and filmed legacy. I saw him several times during that tour, talked to him at length one afternoon at a press reception I simply dared to walk into, and shook his hand on more than one occasion: I needed to do all that, to listen to and talk to and clasp the hand of the man who was, in every sense, the greatest surviving original Blues singer. In doing so, I connected with the deepest of Delta Blues on every level I could. What a privilege.


Pictured: Son House, November 1964. Photo by John Rudoff, M.D.

For more on Son House, including an overview of his career and other recollections by people who knew him and saw him perform, be sure to check out Blues Unlimited #177 – Deep Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Son House.

Just published – “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts, Vol. 1”

Announcing the first new book from ethnomusicologist, author, historian, and independent radio producer Steve Franz in more than 16 years. Now available in the Amazon Kindle Store and at Barnes & Noble.

For nearly a decade, Blues Unlimited Radio has been delighting, entertaining, and engaging listeners each and every week with its unique blend of legendary performers, rare vinyl, beloved standards, and crazy good music. Listeners often say that there’s no radio show out there quite like it.

Blues Unlimited is more than “just” a radio show, however. Our tightly focused themes continually draw in listeners from every corner of the globe, by digging into little known histories, captivating stories, and forgotten blues heroes of the past.

Blues Unlimited Radio started as a dream more than 35 years ago, and is the brainchild of ethnomusicologist, historian, author, and independent radio producer Steve Franz (“The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James”). “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts” gathers together for the first time the complete written scripts of this critically acclaimed program. The first of three installments, Volume 1 covers episodes #140 through #204, and contains complete discographical details on every song from each episode as well.

Named in honor of the groundbreaking British periodical, launched by Simon Napier and Mike Leadbitter in 1963, “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts” is designed to be an important resource for fans, students, aficionados, authors, musicians, researchers, blues lovers, and scholars — or those who simply want to follow along as they listen to the program — as we celebrate and explore one of the great American musical art forms.

10 Desert Island Gospel Discs from Bob Eagle — Part 2

We continue with Bob Eagle’s Top Ten list of favorite Gospel Classics….

 

#5: “I Am Bound For The Promised Land”
Before we leave male instrumentalists, let’s wander into black-sounding white territory. King of this genre is Rev. Alfred G. Karnes, from Bedford, Virginia and later in Kentucky, who was a revelation of the 2-record LP set, “In The Spirit.” Karnes’ bass lines remind me irresistibly of Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley.”


#4: “I’ll Be Satisfied Then”
The ladies have been neglected so far, but let’s move to Oklahoma’s answer to Mahalia: Sister Jessie Mae Renfro. I always think of this song as one long, incredibly ornamented, sentence. Jessie Mae also made a great version of “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down,” with sanctified piano accompaniment.


#3: “Sleep On, Mother”
Back to prewar male groups briefly. Here’s the origin of the ‘clanka lanka’ (link, oh link) refrain, by the Silver Leaf Quartette of Norfolk (1928, William Thatch, lead):


#2: Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down”
Mississippi not only produced blues singers, but also impressive gospel. Here’s a spell-binding song by Bozie Sturdivant, recorded not far from the crossroads (!) in Clarksdale:


#1: “Father I Stretch My Arm To Thee”
From unaccompanied to supremely well-accompanied, we reach, at last, Rev. Killens, a singing preacher, with his congregation as choir. These were fragments of unauthorized recordings, but we’re lucky to hear them – he sought legal advice and was told not to waste his time and money. Originally from Louisiana, he had moved to the Bay Area at the end of the Second War, and many of his constituents ultimately moved with him. I was privileged to meet him at his church in 1972. He was then an old, but impressive man, in failing health and was clearly respected by all who surrounded him.

10 Desert Island Gospel Discs from Bob Eagle — Part 1

Recently, noted author, scholar and blues expert Bob Eagle said he’d put together a list of his favorite Gospel performances…. so without any further ado, here is part one!

 

I really began to get into blues in 1963. Before that, I wasn’t focused. I had heard black gospel such as Mahalia Jackson because I was caught up in the trad jazz craze that had seeped into Australia from the UK. I got into BU [i.e., Blues Unlimited magazine] and the prewar Blues & Gospel Records around 1963, and of course there was some gospel coverage there. But what really got me started on gospel was a Kiwi named Terry Winsor, who sent me tapes of Rev. George W. Killens with his congregation, lining out some old Dr. Watts hymns: they still send cold chills down my spine. And at about that time, “Black Nativity” toured Oz, and I got to meet Prof. Alex Bradford, one of the first gay guys I had met in my then-sheltered existence. His Vee–Jay album LP-5023 is still a favorite.

I know some blues fans don’t like gospel, thinking that it requires belief. But then do we believe we could carry out the threat suggested by Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Your Funeral And My Trial”? This is an all-too-brief introduction to some favorite pieces.

My outright favorites tend to date from about the time I first got interested, or earlier. But in the late 1990s, in a Church of God in Christ in Drew, Mississippi, I heard an evangelist who converted me to tears within minutes. She was Evangelist Arthur Mae Barnes Hampton. She had never recorded but was absolutely stunning. Had she been recorded, she would definitely be near the head of this list. She is indicative of the depth of talent which still exists in the gospel field, and the opportunities there are to still hear wonderful gospel if you know where to look.

These are among the songs which I automatically have to replay over and over when I think of them, or accidentally hear them. I’ve left out Blind Willie Johnson and Charlie Patton, and many other guitar-playing singers, if only because they are guys who readily appeal to blues fans, and may not inspire readers to check out the diversity of sounds available.

#10. “Go Devil Go”
One style that is popular with blues fans is sanctified music associated with the Church of God in Christ, and also the Missionary Baptist Church – stuff like Elder Richard Bryant. Then there’s the sanctified piano associated with Arizona Dranes. Here is a postwar example, by Sister Lillie Mae Littlejohn.


#9: “God’s Creation”
I’ve also left out Sam Cooke’s contributions, because he is so well-known, as is his forbear, Rebert Harris. But one of his sound-alikes really appeals to me: the late James Phelps, of the Gospel Song Birds, who came from Louisiana. The reverse, with its pulsating organ, immediately appeals, but I now prefer the breathtaking lead from James on this one, first heard on an outstanding CD put out by Bruce Bastin’s Heritage label: “Glad I Found The Lord.”


#8: “Freedom After A While”
If female groups are de rigueur, there are still huge numbers of male groups to choose from. A top one which Rick Milne introduced to me is Joiner’s Five Trumpets, from Gary, Indiana. This song features a great bass voice, by either James Campbell or John Ford. The lead voices are probably Lee Sims, George Dowdell or Walter Ford.

 


#7: “Day Passed And Gone”
Sticking with male groups, and incredible voices, we reach the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, with this track featuring the declamatory voice of the late Silas Steele, over probably Earl Malone’s soft tones. The group was led by Jet Bledsoe when I saw them live in Memphis in 1972.


#6: “Preshious Lord” [sic]
Reverting to the guitar-playing prewar-styled singer, it’s hard to ignore Blind Joel Taggart’s amazing postwar demonstration disc of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord”.

https://sundayblues.org/feed/?paged=47

(Note: it’s right at the end of this program. Alternatively it’s on the CD to the Frog Annual #2. It’s also on one of John Tefteller’s Blues Images CDs, probably where the Sunday Blues version came).


And….. a moment to help pay the bills….

Folks, we’re having a fundraiser to help pay for the cost of converting three volumes of the complete transcripts of Blues Unlimited Radio into eBooks. The cost is quite high — each one is about 600 pages — and every dollar raised will go towards that effort. You can donate by clicking on this link. And we thank you!

A Fundraiser for “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts, Vol 1”

We need your help! Here’s the details on a fundraiser we have going right now. All contributions will go towards funding the eBook conversions. The first volume is complete and awaiting funding now, and work will begin soon on volumes 2 and 3. Thank you!

Go to the donation page


For almost a decade, Blues Unlimited Radio has been delighting and entertaining listeners each and every week with our unique blend of legendary performers, rare vinyl, beloved standards, and crazy good music. We often hear from our listeners that there’s no radio show out there quite like it.

Blues Unlimited is more than “just” a radio show, however. Our tightly focused themes continually delight and entertain our listeners by digging into little known histories, captivating stories, and forgotten blues heroes of the past.

Right now, we’re pleased to announce that a major new undertaking — a series of three volumes compiling the complete Blues Unlimited radio show transcripts — are in the works. Volume 1 is now finished, and is awaiting funding to be professionally converted into an eBook format.

Because each volume is rather lengthy and time consuming to convert (volume 1 is almost 600 pages, and each additional volume is expected to be around the same), the cost is going to be more than what we expected.

Your support will go directly towards funding the eBook conversions, and we hope to have the funding in place for volume 1 by the first of March, if possible. Volumes 2 and 3 are scheduled to be completed soon after Volume 1 is on the market.

Listeners tell us repeatedly how much they love Blues Unlimited, and that no matter what, we should keep doing what we’re doing. Your help at this critical juncture will help ensure our future, and make sure that we keep spreading the gospel of the blues to our fans and listeners all over the globe.

For a suggested donation of $20, we will send you a pre-publication PDF of Volume 1. Anyone donating $50 or more will be personally thanked in an upcoming episode of Blues Unlimited. (please make sure you send us your email address so we can send you the PDF – there’s a contact form on our main website, near the bottom, if needed).

Book Review: Bitten by the Blues

Review by Robert Pruter — Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story, by Bruce Iglauer and Patrick A. Roberts

 

Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story by Bruce Iglauer, the founder and president of Alligator Records, is a memoir written with the assistance of Patrick A. Roberts, a professor at Northern Illinois University.

Iglauer, who I had the pleasure of working with as a fellow member of the Chicago Blues Festival Advisory Committee, has always struck me not only as a passionate fan of blues but also as a thoughtful and knowledgeable observer of blues. This comes through in every line of his memoirs. He explains throughout places in this admirable book on what primarily works with him in blues, that is, the kind recorded by Elmore James, with the searing steel on steel slide guitar and passionate full-throated powerful singing.

Iglauer in his opening chapters discusses his upbringing and his family and how early on begun his interest in first folk music, which led to country blues performers, which by the time he attended college in Wisconsin led him to Chicago electric bar band blues. This was developed in his first forays into Chicago while still a student at Lawrence University and his promotion of blues shows at the school.

Iglauer had intentions of becoming an academic in theater and literature. But after college he settled in Chicago and got a job at Bob Koester’s Delmark Records. His discovery of the raw slide guitarist and singer, Hound Dog Taylor, changed his career path. He tried to persuade Koester to record Hound Dog, but Koester having seen him perform drunk and poorly was not interested. Iglauer decided to record Hound Dog himself, and having attended a few blues recording sessions previously, he knew what to do and what not to do (well not all at once — it was a learning process), and ably produce a fine LP that no one had expected from Hound Dog.

Iglauer gives the whole trajectory of Alligator Records to the present day, discussing each of the artists he recorded, with insight and what he learned and how he had to overcome challenges. Early on he focused or recording mostly on the powerful electric guitarists, and gave it an appealing marketing term, “Genuine House Rockin’ Music,” taken from the name Hound Dog Taylor gave his band, The Houserockers.

Probably the artists he worked with that most encapsulate this music—Hound Dog Taylor (obviously), Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Lonnie Brooks, Phillip Walker, Magic Slim, Albert Collins, Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials, and Buddy Guy (leased from a French label).

As Alligator grew and expanded its artist stable it also expanded its breath of music beyond Genuine House Rockin’ Music, reflecting that while Iglauer was most enthralled with the electric slide guitar blues he was expansive in his tastes and would record almost any blues style as long as it was good. This variety is evident from the following blues artists that he recorded and put out records on, from Big Walter Horton (blues harpist), Professor Longhair (a New Orleans pianist), Katie Webster (a gospel boogie pianist), and Koko Taylor (a Chicago blues belter), to Cephas and Wiggins (country blues), Saffire—the Uppity Blues Women (an acoustic trio), and Shemekia Copeland (a powerful female singer).

While Iglauer was wholly focused on recording what he felt was “authentic blues” by African American musicians in the first years of his label, he eventually recorded a number of white blues artists, even those who would more properly be characterized as “rock-blues.’ It appears that he was not that big a fan of “rock-blues,” making comments about such artists “playing too fast” or “playing too many notes.” He mentions that many fans of Alligator felt that the label recording “rock-blues” was a “betrayal.” Alligator’s stable of white artists has included Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Lonnie Mack, Dr. John, Delbert McClinton, Siegel-Schwall, Elvin Bishop, Dave Hole, Marcia Ball, and Tinsley Ellis.

I mentioned a lot of recording artist names in the preceding paragraphs, and that is intentional, because Iglauer in Bitten by the Blues has carefully given each of his artists several pages at least, his full accounting of everything that Alligator put out making the book incredibly strong. He gives each artist a little history, how he discovered each one, what it was in their music that he found compelling, how he worked with them to create an album that would represent the quality he demanded for Alligator, how he recorded and produced them in the studio, and how he marketed and sold the artist. Commercial considerations were not always paramount.

Each profile of his work with the artist is amplified with reports of early qualms about an artist, of funny situations, angry disputes, and anguished problems. A repeated problem with many of his artists was that they would come to the recording session with a lack of songs, despite repeated requests from Iglauer to come to the session with a body of music to record. Iglauer was always clear with his artists that he did not want over-recorded songs (like “Sweet Home Chicago”). This sometimes resulted in Iglauer and his often producer partner, Dick Shurman, hunting through their record collections for songs for a recording session scheduled in a day or so.

Iglauer confesses he developed a reputation as a “control freak” because after more than one poor session experience, he insisted on contracts with the artists that required mutual agreement on choice of songs, producer, mixes, sequence, and packaging. So most all recording sessions with Iglauer involved “guidance” for the artist. And this benefited the label commercially and in terms of reputation — producing album after album that were solid and superbly produced.

Alligator thus became the largest record label for blues in the world, and this was no mere accident. His business model involved promotion, publicity, and artist development — making them “campaign fit,” so that they could tour off a record with a working band and with a full booking of dates. He sent out more free records to stores and radio stations than any other blues label. While difficult in the label’s early years, he spent money to make money. Along the way there were stumbles, from self-inflected mistakes (mainly bad guesses) and forces not under his control (the collapse of indie distribution).

Alligator was built on a growing market by mainstream record buyers (meaning white people) for blues, and particularly blues that sounded close to their the rock music that they were first familiar with. In short he recorded blues for white folks. It was not that in his recordings that he had departed in any great degree from what his artists had been recording earlier for their black audiences. Several issues were involved, the black working class from the 1970s on was moving away from the blues, and particularly the kind of blues that turned on fans of Alligator’s “Genuine House Rockin’ Music” body of recordings. Iglauer makes this point in his book,

Also, African American record buyers of blues were traditionally buyers of singles, not LPs; I have been in many working class African American houses during the 1970s and 1980s, and one rarely ever saw an LP, except perhaps a jazz album or a particularly hip LP like Lou Rawls Live.

Because of the centrality of Alligator Records in the blues world from the 1970s on, Bitten with the Blues is essential reading if one wants to understand the blues business in the last half century. With regard to the next half century Iglauer sees a future that is dire, explained in Chapter 18. Alligator has seen a steady decline in sales for the last twenty years, because of the advent of downloading. But in recent years downloading has declined, being replaced by streaming services, While it was difficult for Alligator to survive on the royalty income from downloading services, like iTunes, it is impossible for the company to survive with the microscopic royalties from streaming services, like Spotify. The implication of this situation for the future of Alligator Iglauer leaves unsaid. He doesn’t need to.

Our thanks to Robert Pruter for his kind permission to re-post this article!