Wilko 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.