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The real rhythm and blues

ChessWilko Johnson’s new autobiography, Don’t You Leave Me Here, received an eloquent recommendation from Mark Ellen in the Sunday Times at the weekend. To coincide with its publication, Universal’s Spectrum imprint is issuing a 40-track double CD set compiled by the former Dr Feelgood guitarist called The First Time I Met the Blues: Essential Chess Masters. Its appearance prompted me to dig out the records you see above: three 45s from my all-time Top 100 box, plus two magnificent albums, all licensed for release in the UK on the Pye International label in the early ’60s.

That red and yellow label still triggers an emotional response, particularly when the centre and the paper sleeve carry the “R&B Series” logo, as the copy of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” pictured above does. Why it didn’t also appear on records like Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and Bo Diddley’s “Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut” is a question that someone out there might be able to answer.

It’s a good compilation, equally valuable to those who no longer have their original copies and to newcomers who would like a compact introduction to a golden age of Chicago rhythm and blues. There are masterpieces here: Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”, Little Walter’s “My Babe”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Goin’ Down Slow”, Sonny Boy’s “Don’t Start Me to Talkin'”, John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood”, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” — the songs that those of us who were in British R&B groups in 1963-65 were required to know.

Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” — recorded in 1948 with Ernest “Big” Crawford’s stand-up bass accompanying the singer’s bottleneck guitar, the two of them sounding like the whole band Waters was soon to assemble — remains one of the great moments in American popular music: magical and mysterious, a perfect integration of voice and instruments, an endlessly fascinating essay in rhythmic subtlety. “Louisiana Blues”, from a band session two years later, runs it close in that respect. It’s interesting to think about the way these particular tracks sounded before a drummer came in to tie down the beat: they float so loose and free (Elgin Evans is credited on “Louisiana Blues”, but his contribution is practically subliminal).

In some ways, however, my favourite among the 40 tracks has to be “Hi-Heel Sneakers”: a record that, in the early weeks of 1964, any young person with the slightest pretension to coolness simply had to own. It amazes me now that this modest little 12-bar blues could become not just a mod classic in the UK but such a big hit on the pop charts: No 11 in the US (Billboard), where it had the benefit of a huge number of black record-buyers, and No 23 in Britain (Record Retailer), where it didn’t.

Tucker (born Robert Higginbotham in Springfield, Ohio) sang and played organ on his own song. That exquisite and unforgettable guitar intro seems to have been played by Dean Young from Ripley, Tennessee — a member, along with bassist Brenda Jones and drummer Bo Tolliver, of Tucker’s regular band, who negotiated a then-fashionable chord pattern that echoed Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” and Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness”. The producer, Herb Abramson (an original co-founder of Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun), wisely left them to get on with it. They cannot have dreamed for a single instant that it would still be listened to and loved more than half a century later.

* This post originally credited the new compilation to the Ace label. Once the error was pointed out, I corrected it. The relevant label is Spectrum.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. J M Jack #

    Good day Richard Your mention of Sonny Boy Williams brought a little memory of times long gone and daynights well-spent. Bumped in Sonny one night on his way home from the 100 Club as I was just leaving a little venture in Wardour Street ,so we continued down the street and as we passed a piled up rubbish bin Sonny suddenly stopped as rushed over to it excitedly , a bit of rummaging produced a very stiff piece of tar paper !!! Whoohoo what a very useful find , wait till we get back to my pad ( he was staying in a small block if flats “Airways House ,I think it was called between Haymarket and Lower Regent Street , just near the “Captains Cabin” pub , a then popular place as it as close to a BBC studio where quite a lot of jazz and popular shows were done ) We will pack some ‘magic herbs in this and sail off into the night ‘ My recollections from there on out are ‘daynight beyond recall ‘ Oh to backwind the Tempus to that ‘lovely London’ !! Bye for now John .

    May 26, 2016
  2. David Everall #

    Have you ever listed the contents of your all-time Top 100 box? If not it would make an interesting post.

    May 26, 2016
  3. John Pidgeon #

    Several of the tracks on Vol 1 were familiar to me before this album appeared, but I remember being blown away by the intensity of Buddy Guy’s vocal and by the whole arrangement of JLH’s Walkin’ The Boogie with its double-tracked vocal, foot stomps and sped-up guitar — not one for the purists back then.
    I have Boom Boom and Dimples on my jukebox today, along with Sonny Boy’s Help Me and Don’t Start Me Talking, but I’m happy to own up to Muddy Waters being represented by the Johnny Winters-produced late 70s version of Mannish Boy — a thrilling record.

    May 26, 2016
  4. John Pidgeon #

    Re-reading your blog, Richard, I realise I didn’t mention Hi-Heel Sneakers, which — it goes without saying — is on the Seeburg. I also have a live 1965 version by Steve Wonder, which merits a listen.

    May 26, 2016
  5. Paul Crowe #

    Intro to Help Me still sends shivers up and down my spine ……

    May 26, 2016
    • Mine too, Paul. I was lucky enough to see him several times.

      May 26, 2016
  6. Eloquent as usual, RW. But let us remember these records are why I, and countless others, do not have a job today. A lifetime in Bohemia beckoned and ’twas these records sang the siren song of listless bumming around the record industry as loudly and proudly as any I have ever heard.

    I blame society if not Sonny Boy himself.

    May 26, 2016
    • Only yesterday over luch with RW and Tom McGuinness I proposed that music had offered us a charmed career. There was no dissenting voice.

      May 26, 2016
  7. Chris Michie #

    I was recently in contact with an Edinburgh University graduate student who is doing a Ph.D. on the history of live sound, 1968-74. Who saw that coming?

    But I have often thought it would be fascinating to know which records were listened to by the ’60s beat boom and English R&B groups and how they decided on which songs to cover (before they all saw the value of writing and publishing their own songs). The Stones were obviously deep into the Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed catalogue, the Animals had a penchant for John Lee Hooker, the Pretty Things were Bo Diddley fans. But the covers chosen by the Spencer Davis Group, the Moody Blues (Denny Laine era, of course) and, possibly the most tasteful cover band of all, Manfred Mann, gave neophytes like me an extraordinary introduction into the then unfamiliar territory of Chicago blues and US R’n’B. And, once I’d realised where all this good stuff was coming from (thanks to Eric Clapton’s always informative interviews in Melody Maker, probably), I found my way back to the originals via the various UK reissues. I had a great album on Stateside (Preaching the Blues) that had about four tracks each by John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Memphis Slim. And I think the first Chess album I bought was The Blues, Volume 1, which I still think holds up as a pretty good assemblage of classics. Even Music for Pleasure and Marble Arch put out some good stuff — Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee and an abridged version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Moanin’ in the Moonlight, for example. I found the Rural Blues two-disc set on Xtra a little too gritty for my taste, but I grew to love Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, T-Bone Walker, and Jimmy Reed, all of whom I first heard on those often fairly random compilation records.

    Eventually, all of the best stuff was appropriated by bands that appeared weekly at The Marquee Club (though I don’t remember that anyone did a good version of Help Me); in retrospect, it’s surprising that Cream and Canned Heat and Jeff Beck found anything left to reinterpret.

    May 27, 2016
    • John Evans #

      Alan Lomax’s seminal 1947 Parchman Farm penitentiary recordings were issued on the Pye Golden Guinea label under the title Murderers’ Home. Sixties blues compilation albums I have still got (others were discarded when they wore out) are Out Came the Blues (Ace of Hearts label, comprising recordings made between 1934 and 1953) and Livin’ with the Blues (Realm Jazz Savoy Series by Oriole Records, comprising recordings from the late 1940s/early 1950s). I could only afford this less expensive stuff, but one of my more moneyed school friends used to buy blues compilations on really obscure labels from a short-lived specialist record shop in Clapham Common Old Town in the 1960s.

      May 28, 2016
    • Preachin’ the Blues had that fantastic version of “Crawling King Snake” — just about my favourite John Lee Hooker track.

      May 30, 2016

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