Blues

Slim Harpo Sings “I’m A King Bee”

Listen to this track, a shot of blues braggadocio from Louisiana son and master blues harpist born James Moore and known more widely as the great Slim Harpo.  It’s “I’m A King Bee”, his most widely known song and a Grammy Hall of Fame (awarded in 2008 for historical significance) single that inspired many a cover version.  Slim’s version was his 1957 debut, originally a B-side (of the A-side “Got Love If You Want It”), but eventually becoming his signature tune.

One of the great things about this tune is Harpo’s matter-of-fact delivery, effortless, and slightly menacing too. It’s well within the popular approach to the blues that is overtly about sexual capacity, and about rivalry too – buzzing around your hive while your man is gone, no less.  It’s no wonder that it captured the attention of rock bands into the 60s, a virtual manifesto for the horny young man making a play for a woman.

In addition to the Rolling Stones version on their 1964 debut album, Harpo’s tune inspired a number of other bands to create their own versions this 3-minute spark of musical sexual potency, including the Grateful Dead, the Doors (who also covered the similarly themed “Backdoor Man” by Howlin’ Wolf), Aerosmith, and others.

John Belushi, dressed as a bumblebee of course, performed this song on a 1976 broadcast of Saturday Night Live.  It was a prototype performance that would later lead to the Blues Brothers appearances on the show, and of course the movie, too.

Slim Harpo’s career was reasonably short lived.  He played music only part time by the 1960s, making ends meet by running a trucking company. Yet he managed to create other blues tunes that had an impact on the rock world including “Baby Scratch My Back” (a number one single, no less), and “Shake Your Hips”, which was covered by the Stones on 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Not a bad run by a part-timer!  But, by 1970, Slim Harpo was dead of a heart attack at the young age of 46.  But, his influence over an entire generation of rock bands immortalizes him.

For more music, check out Slim Harpo on MySpace.

Enjoy!

John Mayall Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton Perform ‘All Your Love’

Listen to this song, a scorching slice of electrified blues straight from the arguable peak of the 60’s London R&B boom.  It’s “All Your Love” from the very brief 1965 line-up of John Mayall Bluesbreakers, a combo which created Mayall’s, and argubly the band’s guitarist Eric Clapton’s, greatest achievement of the period on the 1966 ground-breaking disc Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton.

Eric Clapton had been the fulcrum of The Yardbirds since 1963, starting from the tender age of 18 as an idealistic, serious-minded, and supremely gifted blues guitarist informed by electric players like  Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, as well as older, spookier blues traditions as exemplified by Skip James and Robert Johnson. When called upon to record the more Merseybeat-aligned (and more commercially-motivated) song “For Your Love”, Clapton’s blues muse wouldn’t allow him to continue with the Yardbirds. That honour went next to Jeff Beck. And the song was a big hit.  But, Clapton’s path lay elsewhere.

Seeking an outlet for a purer blues sound, Clapton fell in with Mayall, something of a blues purist himself, although with a love of soul music that would certainly inform his outfit, the Bluesbreakers.  The resulting collaboration between the two, plus bassist John McVie (later of Fleetwood Mac) and drummer Hughie Flint, sent a shockwave through the scene.  And it resulted in some interesting graffiti through out London: “Clapton Is God”.

Sometimes known as the “Beano” album, because of Clapton’s rapt attention to the funny papers on the cover of the record, this track and the rest of the tracks on the album reflect a harder-edged approach to the blues.  Before this, British blues bands were reverent when it came to the source material which fed the scene.  Numbers were performed exactly as they had been on the original sides on labels like Cobra, Chess, and Checker by bands who considered the originals as sacred texts.  Not so with this record, which lays a foundation that is tougher, louder, and more sonically pliable. And the songs mix the traditional with the new, penned by Mayall.

And with these new innovations, this record is more than just an evolution for British musicians playing, and mastering, an American musical form.  It is also the birth of a new subgenre; blues-rock.

Clapton’s stay with Mayall wouldn’t last even until the record was released.  But, it fed his ambition to help to evolve the blues even further when he went on to form Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.  Mayall wouldn’t be stopped in his tracks by Clapton’s departure either, and provided his own contribution to the furtherance of the blues, working first with Peter Green (also like McVie, later of Fleetwood Mac), and also with soon-to-be Rolling Stone Mick Taylor.

Both Green and Taylor can be comfortably described as guitar gods themselves, of course.  But, for a while, there was only one God, at least where London spraycan enthusiasts were concerned. And it’s his performance on this album that created a new theology when it came to rock guitar playing.

John Mayall is an active musician, with decades of service to the mantle of electric blues and blues-rock.  Check out his site at Johnmayall.com

Enjoy!

Junior Kimbrough Sings ‘I Cried Last Night’

Listen to this song, a slice of primal, primordial blues echoing down from the ages and from across continents.  It’s late-blooming recording artist, and well-traveled bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s “I Cried Last Night” as taken from his 1998 record God Knows I Tried.

David ‘Junior’ Kimbrough hailed from North Mississippi, part of a veritable hotbed of high-profile blues talent that came out of the 1990s such as The North Mississippi All-Stars, and R.L Burnside.  Kimbrough had a long regional career in the area, with good many of his previous recordings being singles, recorded sparingly in the 60s. Besides this limited time in recording studios, there weren’t  many opportunities to build momentum as a consistent recording artist. In the 70s and 80s, he toured local juke joints, but had yet to lay down a full-length album.

It wasn’t until he was discovered in the late 80s by critic, producer and impresario Robert Palmer. His first album was recorded on the Fat Possum label in 1992. His music gained attention of rock bands as well as blues fans, with British band Gomez recording Kimbrough’s ‘Meet Me In the City’ on their 2004 Split the Difference album.  “I Cried Last Night”, and the record it is featured on, was his last hurrah, before dying of a heart attack the year it came out, not before recording six albums.  He was 68.

Like John Lee Hooker, Kimbrough’s music shows a clear and shining path back to places like Mali, where the blues was arguably first conceived, if not christened.  And like the best of the blues, it is evocative and otherworldly, evoking a sort of mythical shorthand for emotional connectedness that is attached to the darker corners of the human psyche. But, this is what the blues does best.  It’s encapsulates raw emotions, viscerally, and without artifice, crossing cultural barriers with ease.

Like a lot of African music, Kimbrough’s approach to the blues puts emphasis on the drone, with the guitars winding hypnotically in and out of the steady, interlocking rhythm.  Kimbrough’s voice is muddy, indecipherable in places.  It might as well be in another language. And perhaps in some way it is.

For more information, check out the Junior Kimbrough MySpace page.

Enjoy!

Ry Cooder Performs ‘Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile’

Here’s a clip of roots music archivist, film composer, world music ambassador, and slide-guitar superhero Ry Cooder with a 1987 performance of Billy ‘the Kid’ Emerson’s “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile” in Santa Cruz, California, a town which Cooder incorporates cleverly into the narrative for this particular performance.  The studio version of this song can be found on his 1980 album Borderline.

Ry Cooder BorderlineThis tune is a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song, full of sexual vigour, and with a touch of Tex-Mex and Zydeco flavouring heating things up even more.  The band here is stellar, including stalwart session drummer Jim Keltner, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards, Flaco Jimenez  on accordion, among others.  The calibre of the playing certainly helps to attain a funky groove about being horny and being down and out without wheels at the same time. This is ripe subject matter for rock ‘n’ roll, drawing a distinct correlation between the two.

Ry Cooder himself is a fascinating musical figure, being something of a boy-genius when it came to the guitar and many other stringed instruments when he started out. Before the 1960s had concluded he’d worked with Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal, and the Rolling Stones. By the 1970s, Cooder built a career as a gatherer of R&B, folk, and pop gems from decades past, and re-positioning them in new contexts.  His slide playing became his trademark, as did his ability to repurpose old songs, many of them minor hits and forgotten treasures into a succession of celebrated albums, like Boomer’s Story and (my favourite) Paradise and Lunch.  His 1979 Bop ‘Til You Drop LP was the first major label album ever to be recorded digitally.

Yet this would be merely a stage in his career.  His 1980s work eventually turned to scoring films, the most high profile being the evocative and impressionistic score for the film Paris, Texas starring Harry Dean Stanton who also sings on the soundtrack, and with contributions from fellow stringed-instrument mage David Lindley.  He would also score the film Crossroads, a film which also concerned itself with blues folklore, making Cooder something of a logical choice as film composer.

Apart from his work with John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe as the short-lived Little Village,  Cooder would have a third phase of his career by the 1990s with world music albums featuring Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and later with a group of Cuban musicians later to be known as the Buena Vista Social Club.  This  latter project would make stars out of all participants, with a smash hit album and a celebrated film by Wim Wenders, profiling the story of how Cooder discovered a group of masterclass, and very elderly, Cuban musicians and brought them into the limelight at Carnegie Hall in 1998.

But overall, Cooder is a phenomenal guitarist and arranger, incorporating an incredible stew of influences to take old material and make it shine in a new context while not betraying the original spirit out of which it was born.  That’s a skill that isn’t to be underestimated, and in this Cooder is one of the best at wielding it.

For more information, check out the Ry Cooder MySpace page.

Enjoy!

Otis Rush Sings “I Can’t Quit You Baby”

Here’s a clip of soulful blues belter Otis Rush with a version of his 1956 single on the Cobra label ” I Can’t Quit You Baby”, a landmark in his career that established him as a first-tier Chicago blues artist along with kindred spirits Buddy Guy and Albert King.

With his powerful voice, and stinging left-handed  guitar work, Otis Rush began his career as a hitmaker on the Cobra label, recording with Ike Turner, and scoring several R&B hits, including this one, from 1956-59.  Today, Rush’s talent drastically outweighs his fame. Yet his early singles on the Cobra label established his voice in electric blues scenes in Chicago and beyond.

And “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a song that would become a part of the blues canon because of its unprecedented intensity. Led Zeppelin’s version of ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby” on their first album in 1968 brought the song to a mainstream rock audience. This band who borrowed so heavily from other blues musicians and their songs sticks pretty close to the Otis Rush’s here, perhaps because they had yet to make their name, or maybe that they saw no way to improve it.

After all, listen to Rush’s performance on the clip.  Get a load of that opening note that immediately rivets the audience to their seats, pulling their eyes and ears stageward.  This is as powerful as any rock performance, and Rush seems to be able to pull this out of himself with very little effort, making his presentation something to behold.

Otis Rush embodies something here which was true to his generation as an electric blues elder statesman.  I find much of the electric blues genre in modern times to be slavish, and very often plain erstatz. Yet, Rush is the real thing, exuding confidence, showing mastery while never showboating, and putting across a performance based around his material, as opposed to one based around a set of aesthetics that have become associated with blues performance .

Rush’s powerful and confident guitar chops influenced the playing of both Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield.  And let’s not forget fellow lefty guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who would later go on to influence even more guitarists of both blues and rock persuasions alike.

Otis Rush continued to record and perform until a 2004 stroke took him off of the road.

For more information, check out the Otis Rush MySpace page.

Enjoy!

Hound Dog Taylor Sings ‘Give Me Back My Wig’

Listen to this song by late-blooming bluesman and slide guitar-slinger Hound Dog Taylor.  It’s the oddly titled ‘Give Me Back My Wig’ as taken from Hound Dog’s 1970 debut Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers on the label that was created in order to put it out; the now-legendary Chigago-based Alligator Records.

Hound Dog Taylor (neé Theodore Roosevelt Taylor, no less) was born in 1915 Mississippi, with a presidential moniker and six fingers on his left hand.   His first record was put out in 1970, making him something of an undiscovered treasure when it comes to electric blues.  He clearly draws from Elmore James, both in his vocal delivery and in his scrappy slide playing.  Yet, his onstage energy and personality quickly gained him a following of his own.

Hound Dog moved to Chicago in 1942, where he made a name for himself as a club act.  His command of the blues allowed him to make a few singles in the 50s and 60s, plus a few radio appearances.  But, by 1970, Hound Dog was able to connect with the electric blues festival circuits and revival package tours that had helped folk-blues artists a few years before.  In some ways, the timing was just right for him.

This tune in particular was one of his best-known numbers, and is something of a meat-and-potatoes 12-bar blues which is more than the sum of its parts because of Taylor’s personality which shines through.  This is not to mention the tough-as-nails backing courtesy of the Houserockers, notable for supporting Hound Dog’s slide by means of only a second guitar and a drum kit.  Jon Spencer, eat your heart out.

Hound Dog was also known for his use of cheap guitars, and an almost punk rock approach to the blues, with minimalist arranging and limited soloing.  To me, it’s kind of ironic that his debut album was the flagship record for the birth of Alligator records, which to my ears have taken to building a catalogue of slickly produced contemporary blues and one dimensional blues-rock that is a little light on personality.

At the time of his death from lung cancer in 1975, Hound Dog was actively touring, yet having only released his third LP, the live document Beware of the Dog in 1973.  A fourth was released in the early 80s, by which time he’d become the inspiration to many a young blues fan including one George Thorogood of “Bad to the Bone” fame.

For more information, check out the Hound Dog Taylor MySpace page.

Enjoy!

David Lindley Plays ‘Tijuana’

Listen to this song by virtuoso stringed instrument-collecting savant David Lindley.  It’s ‘Tijuana’ a flamenco-styled folk tale, only one of many styles at which Lindley is skilled.

David Lindley’s chops have been utilized while playing with musicians as varied as Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, The Bottle Rockets, and the Bangles, among many others.  This doesn’t include his work with Ry Cooder as well, a fellow slide guitar player and folk music archivist.   His best known song, ‘Mercury Blues’ is in many ways only a fraction of his musical interests.  Where that song holds the banner of blues rock pretty high, Lindley’s mastery of the blues is really only an extension of his interest in folk music all over the world.

It helps of course that Lindley is exceptionally skilled at a variety of stringed instruments from the lap steel guitar to the bouzouki.   This allows him access to all manner of textures when putting across his material.  In seeing him recently at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival, I was taken on an excursion of North Africa, Greece, the Appalachians, and the Mississippi Delta during the course of a single number.

In this, Lindley’s musical patch is about making a connection between cultures, and a hint that the blues and other Western folk music, however you think of these musical forms, are far older and more widespread across cultural lines than you previously may have suspected.  When listening to Lindley’s set at the festival, it was like being lifted up to a high place where I could see that the lines dividing musical traditions are purely illusory.  It was like the realization  that the world beneath me was one land, one nation, one musical world.

For information on tour dates, and a tour of Lindley’s collection of exotic musical instruments, check out davidlindley.com.

Enjoy!

Harry Manx Plays “The Gist of Madhuvanti/The Thrill Is Gone”

How do you get from traditional Indian raga music to early 70s electrified blues in one move? Listen to this song by Canadian blues-roots-world music purveyor Harry Manx. It’s his arrangement of B.B King’s “The Thrill is Gone” fused with his own Indian folk style raga “The Gist of Madhuvanti”.  The piece is taken from Manx’s 2005 album Road Ragas Live.

This song of course was a major hit for B.B King, full of biting Gibson electric guitar, thanks to B.B’s Lucille. And Manx takes the lush minor chords and attaches seamlessly to a raga.  Manx is an adept guitarist, and 5-string banjo player.  And Manx plays  an instrument on this which you may not have heard of, too.

Manx has a few tricks up his sleeve that makes the transition from Indian music to blues seem easy.  Part of it is his interest, and his background in playing the blues in its purer form.  Another is his extensive five year training in India, and the study of an instrument he discovered there – the mohan veena, which is a cross between a six string guitar and a sitar.  It is a twenty-stringed instrument, with some of the strings not being played so much as accompanying the player by droning when other strings are played.

One of the great things about the blues is that it can often fool you into thinking that it’s pretty one dimensional.  But, what the blues does best, aside from evoking some pretty primal musical impulses in audiences and players,  is to create a framework for other stylistic possibilities too.  After all, that how R&B developed, and in turn how rock ‘n’ roll was born too.  Manx extends this potential here, not only by taking it to another style, but also to other musical notation systems.

Manx isn’t the first artist to explore this mostly uncharted sonic region.  Legendary British guitarist Davy Graham commonly turned to Indian music, and music from many other parts of the world and fused it with Western folk music, most notably in his “Blue Raga”, which marries Big Bill Broonzy with Indian classical music.  Yet, Manx brings his own personality to this, a certain warmth and affection for two traditions, and to music itself.  This is what shines through, and makes this music more than just an academic exercise or a simple novelty.

For more about Harry Manx, check out the Harry Manx MySpace page.

Enjoy!

Magic Sam Performs ’21 Days in Jail’

Listen to this song by R&B kingpin Magic Sam.  It’s ’21 Days in Jail’, a rollicking little number about being down and out and scared out of your wits while doing time.  You can find this genre-defying gem on the compilation album With a Feeling 57-66: The Cobra, Chief & Crash Recordings.

If you thought that the barrier between  R&B and country music in the 1950s and 60s was only being scaled by white people, this ought to set you straight.  Where Sam had cut a number of straight-ahead West side Chicago-style blues, this one is pure Memphis rockabilly even if it wasn’t recorded there.  Chess Records’ linchpin Willie Dixon co-wrote and played bass on this,  but I could swear it was Elvis bassist Bill Black instead.

Magic Sam was both an innovator and a developing artist at the same time, it seems to me.  On the one hand, he stuck to a specific template when it came to his early recordings.  His debut single “All of your love”, was in many ways reproduced with only subtle variation on ensuing singles like “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”.  But, then he’d come out with something like this, which seems to work in an opposite direction from where you might expect. During his brief career, Sam would also incorporate pop music, soul, and other textures into his brand of blues, which helped to expand the possibilities of the genre.

Sam would only enjoy the beginnings of a world-dominating career, dying young at the age of 32 of a heart attack.  Yet his sides for the Cobra label, and the impact he had on contemporary bluesmen like Buddy Guy, and a new generation of blues guitarists who also incorporate country music influences into their playing like Stevie Ray Vaughn would immortalize him.

For more music, check out this Magic Sam MySpace page.

Enjoy!

Muddy Waters Performs ‘Mannish Boy’

Here’s a  clip of Chicago blues elder statesman and natchel born lover’s man McKinely Morganfield, better known as the immortal Muddy Waters, good people.   This is ‘Mannish Boy’, this version taken from Muddy’s 1977 comeback album Hard Again.

The blues has had its ups and downs in the popularity stakes over the years.  And for those not versed in the blues, it’s easy perhaps to dismiss it as simplistic, which may be one of the reasons why so many bluesmen faltered as rock music grew in stature in the 60s and 70s.  In contrast, the blues seemed too basic for many.  Ultimately, this comes down to how one feels about the basics, I suppose.  And on Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”, that’s what we’re confronted with – the bare bones basics that has fed blues, soul, rock, and to a large extent hip hop too.  One person’s ‘basic’ is another person’s elemental.

This tune is pure bravado, not unlike Bo Diddley’s very similar “I’m A Man”, which covers the same territory.  Muddy had recorded this tune before, but this version under the watchful eye of producer and blues disciple Johnny Winter, has become the definitive version of the song.  Winter had spent his whole life idolizing Waters, much like many blues rock musicians.  Yet, when Muddy left Chess Records, Winter was the one who was instrumental in getting him a new contract on Blue Sky records, a sub-label of Columbia.  Additionally, a band partially comprised of some of Waters’ 50s cohorts – most notably James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins – was assembled for the Hard Again sessions.

Of course, the effort paid off.  This is a seminal blues album, both as towering in its delivery as any rock album as well as being true to its roots which are arguably centuries old.  Achieving this balance was always Muddy Waters’ strength.   Here in particular, as Muddy and his band are in a one-chord-one-riff-call-and-response mode, we can hear what is typical of African music and early plantation labourer work songs.   But this being Muddy Waters, everything is electrified in every sense, with Winter’s and Waters’ sideman Bob Margolin‘s enthusiastic hollers through out.

Despite the rawness of this track, there’s something about it that’s epic too and as such can be looked upon as representative of the blues form itself.  This is the sound of Moses coming down from the mountain, good people!  It’s no wonder it’s been used in countless films, most notably by Martin Scorsese, who’s used it multiple times  in Goodfellas, The Color of Money, and of course The Last Waltz when Muddy performed it live.

Muddy’s comeback would be short-lived.  By the end of the 70s, his health was in decline and in 1983 he was gone.  But, he didn’t make his exit before one last burst of undeniable greatness.  And this is it!

For more music and information, check out the Muddy Waters MySpace page.

Enjoy