Whether it’s me or the fact that the last six months have included summer and festival season, the time has passed like a blur, full of blues activity, of which I could only get to a fraction.
I’ll be brief as usual about the losses, but apart from Koko Taylor on June 3 (with all the fanfare she deserved; at least she especially savored every second of the five years after her ultimately fatal problems really hit her, feeling and sharing a lot of joy), I want to note the demise of west side guitarist Don Juan (a Delta Fish Market regular who reputedly worked with Junior Parker at one point), longtime pulse of the Teardrops bassist and underrated vocalist Nick Holt, vocalist Lee Morris, singer-guitarist Mighty Joe Young, Jr., Jesse Fortune and most recently, Alex “Easy Baby” Randle in late September. Of course there’s also been all too much bad health; Otis Clay organized a benefit on Sept. 26 featuring Garland Green, the Walter Scott Band and others for Artie White and Cicero Blake, both struggling in recent years.
On the club front, Legends is making definite progress on renovating their future home at the other end of their block. Cool River has already abandoned their blues format, though the big blues advocate among their management has hopes of resurfacing, perhaps with the same venue name. On the west side, Carolyn’s Club at 1744 N. Central (the former home of Tyrone Davis’ Entertainment Center) has featured Mary Lane and Elmore James, Jr.
We won’t go into details, but can’t ever remember things being worse in the blues record biz, and fear that within a year or two, some of the major things we now take for granted won’t offer us that luxury any more. The old business model just isn’t working in 2009, and unfortunately survival is just one of the possible outcomes.
Looking at the reissue front, Rhino Records let almost everyone go, and Andy McKaie’s contract at Geffen is up next spring. (However, there are some good projects in the planning stage. More on one of those later.)
Personally, I’m happy to see Eddie C. Campbell’s “Tear This World Up” which I produced getting a nice reception; Eddie and I are basically “family” and he made this easy by having a CD full of good material well worked out, plus as the reviews have noted, he hasn’t lost a thing vocally or instrumentally as he turns 70. I’ve also spent the summer working with Elvin Bishop on a retrospective CD of music (plus an interview) called CHICAGO BLUES BUDDIES which he and his great friend and mentor Little Smokey Smothers have made together over the past seventeen years, to help Smokey (who has now lost both legs but is in good spirits and well cared for) and give him a source of excitement in life. Elvin is putting this out himself; there won’t be any real marketing campaign and only 1,000 copies have been pressed, but it’s tasty and for a good cause, and is available from Elvin’s web site, at his gigs or via CDBaby, with hopefully more outlets to be added. Everyone we approached for use of masters, photographs, technical work, graphic design, etc. has been unfailingly and incredibly generous, which speaks eloquently about the blues community and about the regard for Smokey and Elvin. Last self-promotion: I’ve spent the last year going through former dj and label owner Richard Stamz’s archives of tapes and acetates with his daughter Phyllis and biographer Patrick Roberts (whose book about Richard, who died two years ago at age 101, will be published in November by the U. Of Illinois Press). We don’t have all Richard’s masters from labels like Foxy and Paso, but along with many enjoyable mysteries there are an early unissued Andrew Brown session, four instrumentals by W. Williams and the Howlin’ Wolf Band featuring Hubert Sumlin and Little Johnny Jones from early ‘63 (the “Rough Dried Woman” backing track session), a vocalist (possibly Harold Burrage) rehearsing with some great Jody Williams guitar, 20 minutes of radio plugs by Burrage for a forthcoming Little Walter club gig, lots of nice Freddie Robinson guitar work as a leader and sideman (incidentally it was interesting to hear Freddie King’s unattributed version of Robinson’s instrumental “The Buzzard” as part of King’s demo session on his fantastic Bear Family box set), a Roosevelt Sykes session with a band, and my favorite: a terrific, bluesy and swinging set of Dinah Washington live on the south side at the Roberts Lounge, probably in early 1961. It’s head and shoulders above any live Dinah I ever heard; she never did a live album per se. Steps are being taken toward release of Dinah’s set on Hip-O Select next year. Steve Cushing’s book based on interviews over the years for his radio show “Blues Before Sunrise,” due out in January, also has a chapter on Richard Stamz.
I have to give a shout out to the Windy City Blues Society, which is off to a nice start with a newsletter, some social events and well-organized competition to send a Chicago act to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis next January. Their web site is www.windycityblues.org.
There have been a ton of worthwhile shows as usual for the season. Larry Garner’s May 3 tribute to Gatemouth Brown with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble at the DuSable Museum was a rare treat. It was extra fun for me mc-ing Eddie C.’s 70th birthday party at Legends May 29. The first evening of Aurora’s Blues On The Fox June 19 was rained out, just as well for me since I had to miss it to run Elvin down to visit Smokey and his cousin Lee “Shot” Williams on the south side, but June 20 was a full day with Two Man Wrecking Crew and Henry Butler being my highlights along with Sugar Blue, Watermelon Slim and Los Lobos. Fitzgerald’s American Music Festival over the Fourth Of July holiday weekend is always top notch. I went July 3 for Terrance Simien, Roomful Of Blues (whom I also enjoyed at a reception during my librarians’ convention a couple weeks later, doing their own set and backing Eddy Clearwater seamlessly and for the first time), Trombone Shorty, Shemekia Copeland (who’s marrying Buddy Guy’s bassist Orlando Wright in December), Marcia Ball and Eric Lindell. Delmark’s release party for the “It Ain’t Over” video at Legends on July 24 was fun with nice sets from Quintus McCormick, Michael Coleman, Jimmy Johnson, Zora Young and others. I got to spend some good hang time with Johnny Winter as he spent a fair amount of time in the area with two local shows and some layovers. He’s in the best personal and musical zone I’ve seen in many years; everyone in the band seems thrilled with the impact of having his manager Paul Nelson playing rhythm guitar and Vito Luizzo back on drums, and Johnny has pretty much re-formulated a lot of his guitar solos since his chops have come so far with his return to good health. Now for a recording deal..... meanwhile, the five volumes of the Authorized Bootleg Series and the Woodstock live set offer plenty of hot blues to tide fans over. Finally, it’s been fun seeing Guy King get good feedback on his debut CD LIVIN’ IT and gaining a nice following with his work solo at Legends, an organ trio including up and coming Ben Paterson and drummer Isaiah Spencer, his blues band and the Little Big Band with three horns. Guy’s music and approach to his career offer a lot of promise, and it looks like some well-deserved good things are imminent.
Back to the Chicago Blues Festival..... there was some grumbling about the impact of budget cuts with few big names and a reduction to three days and two less daytime stages, and Koko Taylor’s south side funeral coincided with the first day (so I missed the funeral since I was helping Eddie C. With preparations for his set that evening). On a poignant note, it just didn’t feel the same without seeing Koko up near stage left at the bandshell, dancing and beaming, and there have certainly been more star-studded evening lineups over the years. But it was still rich, with far too much of interest for one person to cover. I warmed up at Dave Specter’s Evanston club SPACE on Thursday night with an evening of Billy Flynn, Jody Williams and James Wheeler. Earwig Records’ 30th anniversary was given a lot of stage time throughout the festival. Friday keepers for me included Big Bill Morganfield (whose new CD is very nice) and Mud Morganfield together on the Front Porch Stage, followed by Jr. Boy Jones and then his longtime employer Charlie Musselwhite; Mary Lane’s set including Rockin’ Johnny and Lurrie Bell at the Crossroads Stage; the Maxwell Street commemorative set at the Juke Joint Stage; and Delmark’s night at the Petrillo Bandshell with Shirley Johnson and Eddie C’s birthday/CD release celebration. Rain didn’t slow things down Saturday.
I was sorry to miss Nolan Struck and King Edward at the Front Porch due to overlapping schedules, but charming and risque Eden Brent, Lil’ Dave Thompson (more individual and less Albert King stylings as time passes and he grows; he’d have been right at home on the west side) and Travis Haddix’s usual enjoyable soul-blues show brightened the afternoon, Walter Scott and band did their typical solid job presenting a revue of lesser known female singers, it was good to catch Trudy Lynn with the Chicago R & B Kings and Bettye LaVette was even more riveting than usual; it’s always fun to watch her bring the large crowd down to total silence and then back up to enthusiastic approval.
Afterwards I headed over to Reggie’s for another nice evening organized by Cadillac Zack which also served as a CD release party for Eddie C. Sunday brought an excellent Front Porch set by Lou Pride, the down home Rabbit Factory Soul Revue, Vernon Harrington’s Magic Sam evocations, a very strong set by Ernest Lane with virtually all the final roster of former bandleader and childhood friend Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm at the Crossroads which belonged on the Petrillo Bandshell, afternoon and evening sets by Big Jack Johnson, Johnny Drummer and a well-honed headline set by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings to wrap things up. Add in all the sets, jams, panels, etc, I missed, and it’s still a great weekend with something to offer blues enthusiasts of just about any taste. Next year will feature centennial commemorations of Howlin’ Wolf and T-Bone Walker and will almost certainly be the last with Barry Dolins in charge. What will follow the highly commendable integrity with which he has booked the event for 25 years is a worrisome question, but everything does change and time will tell.
Meanwhile, apologies to all the artists and events I’ve omitted, and here’s to good blues to fill the intervening months for all readers!
----- DICK SHURMAN