CD of the Month

BIG JOE WILLIAMS: The Original Ramblin’ Bluesman 1945-1961

Jasmine (Two CDs: 78:01; 77:07)

CD One: His Spirit Lives On/ Baby Please Don’t Go/ Stack Of Dollars/ Mellow Apples/ Wild Cow Moan/ P Vine Blues/ Bad And Weak Hearted Blues/ King Biscuit Stomp/ I’m A Highway Man/ Banta Rooster Blues/ Mean Stepfather Blues/ House Lady Blues/ Don’ You Leave Me Here/ Jivin’ Woman/ She’s A Married Woman/ Mama Don’t Allow Me/ Delta Blues/ Over Hauling Blues/ Whistling Pines/ Friends And Pals/ Juanita/ She Left Me A Mule/ Bad Heart Blues/ Baby Please Don’t Go/ Ride In My New Car With Me/ Rather Be Sloppy Drunk/ Cottage Grove Blues

CD Two: Goin’ Back/ My Baby Left/ King’s Highway/ Lula Mae/ All I Want Is My Train Fare Home/ I’m Talkin’ About You/ Joe Williams’ Blues/ Don’t Leave Me Here/ Cow Cow Blues/ Crawlin’ King Snake/ I May Be Wrong/ Keep A-Knockin’/ Cottage Grove/ Meet Me In The Bottom/ Bessemer Baby/ Baby Please Don’t Go (Highway 49)/ Shake Your Boogie/ Jump Baby Jump/ Mean Mistreater/ Prison Bound/ Whistlin’ Pines/ Bluebird Blues/ Elevate Me Baby/ T.B. Blues/ King Biscuit Stomp No. 2/ Rootin’ Ground Hog

When this release arrived for review, my Blues Calendar was showing an early Bluebird publicity still of a young Joe Williams, smiling broadly, his burly frame almost pushing out of the photo’s edges. He was in his early thirties when he recorded for that label, already gifted with a style that was very much his own, but steeped in Delta tradition. The music in this collection all post-dates his Bluebird years, but the thrusting energy, the skilful and utterly distinctive guitar playing and the intense blues power, scarcely lets up throughout. 

The title of this album is apt in more ways than one. Not only did Joe Williams live the life of an itinerant musician, but in the period covered he moved frequently between record labels, leaving behind a trail of top-quality music. From an oddity on the Chicago label, a single side from 1945 commemorating the recently deceased Franklin D. Roosevelt, we move on to his last major label recordings, for Columbia, with John Lee Williamson on harp, plus bass and drums. These twelve sides from 1947 represent a pivotal point in post-war Chicago blues – tough, driving small-band downhome blues, with a gritty urban edge. The only step left to take was to add electric amplification, but that’s not to suggest that there is anything lacking in these fantastic recordings.

At his next session, in St. Louis two years later, he did plug in but left the band behind, and these two exquisite solo sides released on Bullet are among my favourites. The sound, of course, is sparer, but Williams’ guitar carries it all magnificently, especially on ‘Married Woman’ where he throws in all sorts of little instrumental devices – snapping strings, shooting off fast-repeated slide phrases and pounding bass runs.

For Trumpet Records, back home in Mississippi in 1951, he started off by evoking John Lee Hooker, both sides of his first release for the label picking up riffs and lyrics from the then hot Detroit blues star, reminding us that as a working musician, Williams needed to be able to treat listeners to familiar sounds as well as his own formidable creations. T.J. Green’s bass fills out the sound a bit on the rest of his Trumpets, every one a gem, from the thrill of the high slide lines on ‘Over Hauling Blues’ to the stomping rhythms of ‘She Left Me A Mule’, where he works expertly with the bass to drive things along.

In Shreveport the next year, he put down four sides unissued at the time (the tracks finally appeared on compilations in the Specialty Story series in the 1970s, two on a Barret Hansen compiled LP in the U.S., then all four in the U.K.). Ace picked two of them for CD release some years ago, but I think this is the first time all four have been available in digital form – reason to celebrate as, while Joe sounds a little more subdued, these are still very good indeed.

Keeping moving, Joe turned up in a Chicago studio in 1956, again laying down four outstanding performances for Vee-Jay. The fact that they only issued two is an indication that Joe’s kind of blues were becoming unfashionable, not that he was losing his touch. He wasn’t. A long 1957/58 session for Cobra, which all remained unissued until a Flyright LP in the 1980s, also shows how good he still was, and how he could adapt comfortably to a piano accompaniment (by Erwin Helfer). It’s good to hear his stomping feet on these tracks, too.

The blues revival had only just got going in the late 1950s, but Joe was already attracting its attention, and another session in Chicago somehow found its way into the hands of the Collector label in London, which released eight tracks on two EPs, with wide-eyed notes by Alexis Korner. Once again, it’s all good stuff, and it’s not only new to CD, but new to anything other than the original EPs, which (appropriately enough) are highly coveted collector’s items – all credit to Jasmine for getting these out again. Six of these tracks again feature Helfer, more prominent in the mix than on the Cobras, but still to good effect, especially ‘Cow Cow Blues’, not a tune you’d usually associate with Williams, and ‘Keep A Knockin’’.

Finally, there’s six tracks from a 1961 Delmark session, previously on a Folkways LP, with Ransom Knowling supporting on bass. Listen to this animated version of ‘King Biscuit Stomp’ for particular evidence of how these two very different musicians could work so well together. There’s a slightly different character to some of these performances, maybe a little more reflective, not so frenetic as on some of the commercial sides, but this would be a matter of degree, and it’s a nice contrast to have on a set like this.  

Big Joe was one of the greats, by any standards, and this collection features some of his finest and most varied work, enhanced by Neil Slaven’s notes, and featuring some genuine rarities. The term ‘essential’ is much over-used in reviews, but this stuff pretty much defines it as far as I’m concerned.

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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