CD of the Month

DIRTY WORK GOING ON: Kent & Modern Records Blues Into The 60s Vol 1

Ace CDCHD1571 (74:02)

FILLMORE SLIM: Go Ahead (take 3); KING SOLOMON: New Figure/ Please Me President/ SK Blues/ Let Me Be Your Eagle Baby (take 1)/ Almost Midnight (take 3)/ Mr Bad Luck; LITTLE JOE BLUE: Understanding/ Dirty Work Going On (take 8)/ Can’t Have Your Cake & Eat It Too (take 3)/ Jimmy’s Special; T-BONE WALKER: Hey Hey Baby/ Jealous Woman/ Should I Let Her Go/ Love Will Lead You Right; LARRY DAVIS: It Can Only Hurt For So Long/ Something About You Baby (take 7)/ Sweet Little Angel; FLASH TERRY: On My Way Back Home/ One Thing We Know; BILLY RAY aka FILLMORE SLIM: Fast Gun Annie/ Playboy (Underdub)/ Texas Queen (Underdub); STACY JOHNSON: Consider Yourself (extended version); BIG JAY McNEELY: Blues In G Minor (Blues Guitar); B.B. KING: Down Now (take 3)

Ace Records’ range of interest has always been much wider than blues, and has only got wider – it’s a long way from Sylvester Cotton to Francoise Hardy. It can’t be easy keeping every customer happy. In recent years, blues releases have rarely seemed top of their priorities, and when an anthology like this comes along, reviewers like me might be tempted to mutter a churlish: ‘It’s about time’. The hardest blues fan’s heart has to melt, though, when the music starts to play. Most of what’s here, I’ve never heard before, and I’m glad to get to hear it now.

Recorded around the turn of the 1960s, some tracks appeared on Kent or Modern 45s back then, but most of what’s here did not. A couple have cropped up on Ace anthologies over the years, others appeared in Japan when P-Vine did a pretty comprehensive job with some limited-edition CDs. Several here, though, are unissued or alternate takes. In any case, this is the first serious attempt to release this music in the UK. 

Soul sounds were starting to dominate the r&b scene at this time, strongly apparent in various respects throughout this set – in vocal stylings, funky rhythms and arrangements and so on. And yet, this is very much the blues, with twelve-bar structures and old-style chord progressions most of the time. There’s a great deal of brilliant blues guitar throughout, and in his notes, Dick Shurman offers his suggestions about which particular player we’re hearing at various times. It would be fun to join a dialogue on that, but frankly it’s beyond me – let’s just say that there are some very proficient and highly musical players, including session stalwarts such as Charles Wright, Arthur Wright and Arthur Adams, the overlapping names necessitating even more unravelling than usual.

Larry Davis is a particular favourite singer of mine, which is hardly a negative reflection on such powerfully expressive voices as Fillmore Slim or Stacy Johnson (the almost four-minute take of ‘Consider Yourself’ being especially welcome) and very fine ones like Little Joe Blue and King Solomon. Two of the greatest blues singers of the previous two decades are also featured, and on the four T-Bone Walkers and one B.B. King, at least, there’s no question about who’s playing lead. In his notes, Shurman speculates that some tracks were awaiting overdubs that never happened, and Flash Terry’s two sound a bit like that – kind of unfinished, like demos or early takes. The upside is a raw, downhome feel that I find very satisfying. 

There are signs of the times in some lyrics, too. King Solomon’s ‘Please Mr President’ is a draftee’s lament with the classic line, ‘Uncle Sam ain’t no woman… ohhh, he sure can take your man’, as live an issue in the 1960s as it had been in the 1940s. Mind you, this line from Larry Davis would be relevant at any time in US history: ‘My bad luck started when I was born with a black face, and no matter where I go, it always felt out of place’.

As usual, there’s Ace’s eye-catching presentation, nicely illustrated and with expert notes. It’s a real treat these days to be able to recommend, without reservation, an anthology of vintage blues.

Ray Templeton

ALABAMA MIKE: Hip You To My Blues

Big Tone Records 246 (48:00)

Black Cadillac/ I’m Selfish/ California Blues/ Frustrate My Life/ 20% Alcohol/ Diabetic Man/ Cut That Out/ How You Want Your Rollin Done?/ V-8 Ford Blues/ Hip You To My Blues/ Stop Accusing That Woman/ I’m In Love With A Woman/ Hello Central/ Keep My Grave Clean/ I Feel So Good

It was a surprise to learn about a new release by Alabama Mike (real name Michael A. Benjamin) on Big Jon Atkinson’s new label. Alabama Mike’s earlier recordings, such as those with The Andy T Band in 2017’s ‘Double Strike,’ often displayed a gospel-rooted vocal style in the manner of Little Johnnie Taylor. 

This new release finds him in a down-home blues vein with a dose of Lightnin’ Hopkins flavour along with some tracks that evoke early ’50s Chicago style. This recording reflects Alabama Mike’s long-burning desire to ‘do a record in the classic style of early electric blues pioneers….’ 

The backing musicians on this set of retro blues include Kim Wilson on harmonica, Big Jon Atkinson and Danny Michel on guitar, Troy Sandow and Kedar Roy on bass, Joe Lempkowski on harmonica, June Core and Malachi Johnson on drums, Robert Welsh on keyboards, on retro-sounding performances.

Alabama Mike certain invests his vocals with intensity and soul. The Lightnin’ Hopkins influence can best be heard on the opening ‘Black Cadillac’ (with Atkinson on guitar) as well as the revival of Hopkins’ ‘Hello Central’ with Danny Michel on guitar, Kim Wilson on harmonica and Marty Dodson on drums lending the performance a swamp blues flavour. Danny Michel also channels Hopkins guitar on the swampy ‘California Blues,’ with choice Joe Lempkowski harmonica accompaniment.

A reworking of John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson’s ‘Cut That Out’ sounds like a down-home version of Junior Wells 1950’s recording. Kim Wilson is on harmonica, Atkinson on guitar and Dodson on drums. Welsh provides the greasy organ on ‘Diabetic Man’ with Wilson on the harp. On ‘How You Want Your Rollin Done,’ Atkinson plays some excellent T-Bone Walker-styled guitar. On Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘I Feel So Good,’ Alabama Mike delivers a strong vocal in the manner of Muddy Waters with J.B. Hutto styled slide guitar in the backing. ‘Keep My Grave Clean’ is an ingenious band reworking of what was Blind Lemon Jefferson’s most famous recording, while the cover of J.B. Hutto’s ‘Too Much Alcohol’ sticks close to the arrangement of Hutto’s Delmark recording.

A moody rendition of Willie Love’s ‘V-8 Ford’ with Atkinson and Welsh closes a release of notable down-home blues performances. There are a couple of times the backing may be a tad skeletal, but Alabama Mike’s singing and the idiomatic support result in a most entertaining blues album.

Ron Weinstock

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