Listen to this song by much-missed R&B stylist, and elementally gifted vocalist Etta James. It’s “Tell Mama”, a broiling example of full-on soul-power, charged with the fire of the blues, as taken from the album of the same name, Tell Mama, from 1968.
The record and song was something of a comeback for James, who first broke out in 1960 after some minor dents in the R&B charts previously. She had become sidelined by the middle of the decade by a series of personal problems, including a growing heroin habit. Her addiction to drugs would continue to be a personal millstone around her neck for many years.
Yet, the sheer power of her voice, and the uniqueness of the same, would remain undiminished. And this tune is my favourite of her songs, which is really saying something given the quality of her output.
The comeback itself was successful, with this song being top 10 on the R&B charts, and with the album being her first for almost half a decade to hit the Billboard 200. This tune would become something of a signiture hit, along with “At Last”, her version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, and another cut off of the same LP – “I’d Rather Go Blind”.
Listen to this track by modern bluesman and national steel guitar-slinging songwriter Chris Whitley. It’s “God Left Town”, a deep cut on his 2004 Internet-and-gig only album, and his ninth, War Crime Blues. The song showcases Whitley’s skill as a guitarist who is able to hold the threads of an arrangement, and of emotional currents together by the strength of six strings, and a foot stomp.
This is to say nothing of his voice, which here is like a voice of one crying in the wilderness. It’s like hearing the words spoken through a sandstorm, obscured by the noise of emotional turmoil as created by the roiling lines of the guitar. And then, the whole thing just stops.
It’s hard not to connect this song, and others on War Crime Blues (such as a cover of the Clash’s “The Call Up”) with a time of unique absurdity, when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged with seemingly no end in sight, and for no definable purpose. By the time this record was created, George W. Bush had been inexplicably re-elected after initiating all of that. It was high time for a protest record.
Yet, really it seemed like a record or a song that crafted well-reasoned arguments as to why the war in Iraq was immoral, nonsensical, and waged clearly to protect the private interests of corporations was not really going to cut it anyway. No one was listening to reason.
Luckily, Chris Whitley’s record, and this song, isn’t about that at all. It’s about something more primal than that.
Listen to this track by British power trio, “supergroup”, and hard-rock pioneers Cream. It’s their live performance of Robert Johnson’s 1936 song “Crossroads Blues”, a take on the song that also quotes another Johnson song, “Travelin’ Riverside Blues”, and showcases the three-way assault of each member of the band (For you stereo listeners: Bassist Jack Bruce to your left, drummer Ginger Baker just behind you, and Eric Clapton to your immediate right).
The song itself is a tale of an unnamed dread, a fear of nightfall and being out on the road alone. Many associate this song with the legendary and very often repeated tale of a deal going down at a crossroads in Misssissippi, where Robert Johnson is rumoured to have sold his very soul in order to become no less than King of the Delta Blues Singers. Johnson’s influence is certainly proven by this cover version, performed in March of 1968 at San Francisco’s famed Winterland Ballroom, a mecca of rock ‘n’ roll history. Cream scored a #28 hit with this rendition of the song.
But, what is the real story behind this tune, and the real source of dread hinted at in its lyrics? Is it the terror of a supernatural force, or is the threat the song’s narrator is alluding to more of a mortal concern? Continue reading →
Listen to this track by ’60s mod champions and British R&B purveyors The Small Faces. It’s “You Need Loving”, a belter of an R&B tune recorded in 1966, and featured on their self-titled debut record The Small Faces . The song was originally written a few years earlier for Muddy Waters to sing by Chess Records bassist, producer, and songwriting giant Willie Dixon, who christened it “You Need Love“.
This version by the Small Faces had a tremendous influence on the upcoming hard rock scene by the end of the decade. It might actually sound very familiar to you as it inspired yet another song by a group of British R&B enthusiasts, who made that song into something of a signature number of their own – “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.
The blues is a mysterious form, as we’ve seen. Like a lot of vibrant folk music, individual songs aren’t so much owned as they are passed along, and changed through performance and interpretation over the years and decades. But, as we’ve also seen, the modern publishing industry isn’t so mysterious when it comes to the issue of borrowing and adapting without leave. So, how did things unfold with this tune?
Listen to this track by primo blues harpist and bad, bad R&B badass Little Walter. It’s his signature #1 hit and key R&B statement “My Babe”, originally released as a single in 1955 on the Chess Records label, home of many, many R&B hits, and as featured on numerous blues compilations. Not too many of them put a woman on a pedestal like this and still retain its balls, of course.
This tune was one of the first Chess sides I’d ever heard, and what a revelation it was. Just the sound of it unlocked a whole corridor of musical tradition and allowed me new access to forms I’d always felt separated from. It was the Chess sound that activated blues-rock in the 60s, and hard rock in the 70s. Understanding where all of that came from allowed me to really appreciate where, say, Led Zeppelin had come from too. Continue reading →
Here’s a clip of modern-day proto-electric rural blues stylist Little Miss Higgins (sometimes known as Jolene Higgins when not on stage), hailing proudly from the heart of the Canadian Praries – Nokomis, Saskatchewan to be exact. It’s a rendition of her affectionate ode to her surroundings, “Middle of Nowhere” originally to be found on her 2007 album Junction City, as well as on the live document, Little Miss Higgins Live Two Nights in March.
A lot of great music has come out of the supposed backwaters of the world. The Canadian Prairies is such a place; geographically isolated perhaps when compared to urban settings. Yet it’s in place like this where tight-knit communities are found to treasure that unique simplicity of living. In the more desolate places, celebrating the joys to be found in simple things is part and parcel toward defining what ‘home’ means. And perhaps the end result leads to a greater attachment, and a deeper sense of belonging.
This is one of the appeals of Little Miss Higgins’ “Middle of Nowhere”. This song is all about defining what ‘home’ means. The place in this song may be a featureless place on the surface, but it is ultimately full of singular character. This makes the song a concentrated shot of the culture and attitude out of the place from which it comes. This can be said for her entire oeuvre, love letters to her home as it is.
Musically speaking, there is of course a heavy debt to the rural blues and country music of the pre-war period. This is a good fit when it comes to LMH’s subject matter, which is about collecting little snapshots of a place that, perhaps in the minds of many who’ve never been there, exists in 1930s sepia-tones. And even to those who are from there, the sense of community bound by common experience isn’t crowded out by slick arrangements.
In short, the music is entirely appropriate to its subject matter, and packed to the brim with unbridled affection and charming self-deprecation.
I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Little Miss Higgins perform with her musical colleague Foy Taylor (also featured in the above clip) perform at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival this year. The performance was charming, raw, hilarious, and just plain warm. LMH was like an ambassador from the rural Prairies, making ‘the middle of nowhere’ sound like a vital, and welcoming somewhere, even for us city-folk.
For another wonderful clip of Little Miss Higgins, check out this blog post from my friend Emme Rogers, which features a clip of LMH’s performing another tune of hers – “Me and My Gin”
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.