CD of the Month

BOBBY LEECAN: Suitcase Breakdown 1926-1928

Frog DGF86 (78:00)

SOUTH STREET TRIO: Suitcase Breakdown/ South Street Stomp #2/ Cold Morning Shout/ Mean Old Bed Bug Blues/ Dallas Blues; BOBBIE LEECAN & ROBERT COOKSEY: Blue Harmonica/ Dirty Guitar Blues/ Ain’t She Sweet/ Royal Palm Special; BOBBIE LEECAN’S NEED-MORE BAND: Short’nin’ Bread/ Midnight Susie; BLIND BOBBY BAKER: Macon Georgia Cut Out/ Nobody Needs You When You’re Down And Out; ELIZABETH SMITH & SIDNEY EASTON: When My Wants Run Out/ Talk ‘Bout Something That’s Gwine To Happen; THOMAS WALLER WITH MORRIS’S HOT BABIES: Red Hot Dan; EDDIE EDINBOUROUGH: Harlem Baby/ Wild Cats Ball; MARGARET JOHNSON: Good Woman Blues/ Second Handed Blues; ALBERTA HUNTER: Gimme All The Love You Got/ My Particular Man; DIXIE JAZZERS WASHBOARD BAND: Kansas City Shuffle/ Black Cat Bone

It might seem to be putting the cart before the horse to start a review by talking about the booklet notes, but Guido van Rijn’s documentation of the life and work of the subject of this wonderful collection deserves more than an afterthought at the end. Deep and comprehensive research into official records and newspaper archives has enabled him to construct a biography of a fine musician who has always been a bit of a historical blank. No need for me to rehearse the details here – suffice to say that this is rather more than an added bonus to the great listening pleasure to be found on the disc.

The music is terrific, and it is so good to hear a broad selection of the work of a fine musician who has tended to fade into the background a bit. In partnership with the exceptionally-talented harmonica player, Robert Cooksey, he appeared on discs credited to the pair’s own names, to the State Street Trio (with Alfred Martin) and to Bobbie Leecan’s Need-More Band. Duets like ‘Dirty Guitar Blues’ are displays of skill and imagination for both musicians, as well as presenting evidence of two men who must have played together so often that their communication was almost telepathic. Leecan plays much of the tune on the lower strings of his guitar, almost like virtuosically extended and developed bass-runs, interspersing occasional passages on the treble strings, which sound to me like they are doubled up. I’m guessing a nine or ten-string instrument, probably – like that of Big Joe Williams – customised by the player.  

Ingredients are varied, from twelve-bar blues to pop tunes, and several tracks occupy that grey area between jazz and blues. Fats Waller (playing pipe organ) with Thomas Morris and his band offer us a glorious burst of 1920s jazz, and looking up Eddie Edinborough in ‘Blues & Gospel Records’, the enquirer is directed towards ‘Jazz Records’ for that artist’s discographical coverage. Aurally, you can see why, but in a collection like this, the contrasts aren’t really so striking – Leecan’s guitar solo on the Waller/Morris is entirely consistent with his playing on other tracks. On the other hand, the fizzy dance tunes of the Dixie Jazzers, who included both Morris and Edinborough, are listed in ‘B&GR’. Such are the dilemmas of the discographer, but if you’re not concerned about categories, it’s all African-American popular music, and it all sounds wonderful.

There’s some prime cuts in vaudeville style from cross-talk act Elizabeth Smith with Sidney Easton, the bluesier Margaret Johnson, and a young Alberta Hunter. The notes quote David Evans as observing that only the most versatile guitarists had much hope of getting into vaudeville theatres, which is a testament to Leecan’s instrumental skills and scope. He was pretty good on the banjo, too, and can be heard here on the instrument, with Alfred Harris playing very Leecan-like accompaniment. Paul Swinton adds a note in the booklet, expressing the view that perhaps some work is still needed on identifying exactly who is playing what on some titles, and I’m inclined to think he might be right.

We also get to hear Leecan in solo mode, on a pairing released under the pseudonym Blind Bobby Baker. He wasn’t the world’s greatest singer, although he carries the tunes well enough, and he doesn’t play a very elaborate accompaniment, but these are still most interesting in the context of this collection, and it’s good to get to hear the voice of this remarkable musician.

As this is on Frog, you probably don’t need me to tell you that the sound quality is first class, incorporating transfers by a range of people who know what they’re doing, using originals in the best of condition. It scores on every count, then, and gets a hearty recommendation.

Ray Templeton

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