Revisiting An Influential Chicago Blues Classic
Chicago / The Blues / Today! Vol. 1 is out now via Craft Recordings
The post-war blues scene in Chicago proved to be so robust, so electric, so damn exciting that it would subsequently become known as its own genre.
Blues music had long existed in the Windy City – pioneers like Tampa Red, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and Big Bill Broonzy had staked their claim in the 1920s and ‘30s – but migrants like McKinley Morganfield (a/k/a Muddy Waters), Jimmy Rogers, and others made the long trip from Mississippi up the river to Chicago throughout the 1940s in search of work, creating a vibrant, thriving, and urbane local blues scene. Younger musicians like Buddy Guy, “Magic” Sam Maghett, and Otis Rush soon followed, adding further energy, imagination, and diversity to the Chicago blues sound.
Famed music historian and record producer Samuel Charters had an idea to create a Chicago blues sampler for Vanguard Records, as the legendary folk label was looking to expand its sound into other areas. Charters recruited nine different blues artists to come into the studio and record several songs each, and the performances were subsequpently released in 1966 on three critically acclaimed albums titled Chicago / The Blues /Today! The first of these three records was recently reissued by Craft Recordings, the album featuring all-analog mastering from the original stereo tapes, pressed on 180-gram vinyl and featuring Charters’ original album liner notes. Vol. 1 showcases dynamic performances by legendary blues harpist Junior Wells, guitarist J.B. Hutto, and pianist Otis Spann, representing three important instrumental aspects of the Chicago blues sound (harmonica, guitar, piano).
Known to fans as the “Godfather of the Blues,” Junior Wells was able to grab an audience by the ears and take them on a musical rollercoaster ride with his own unique spin on the city’s sound. Often performing alongside guitarist Buddy Guy, Wells enjoyed a lengthy career that spanned 50 years, his staggering harp solos and vocal interplay defining the Chicago blues harp sound at a time when the music was still shedding its country roots. Born in West Memphis, Arkansas Wells picked up the harmonica at the age of seven, taking lessons from his cousin Junior Parker and blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II (a/k/a Rice Miller).
Moving to Chicago as a teenager, Wells began performing with the Aces (guitarists Dave and Louis Myers and drummer Fred Below) before replacing Little Walter in Muddy Waters’ band (interestingly, Little Walter subsequently hooked up with the Aces for his solo records). Wells released his groundbreaking debut album, Hoodoo Man Blues, in 1965 for the legendary Delmark Records label. Accompanied by his friend Guy on guitar (under the pseudonym “Friendly Chap” due to contractual obligations), Wells delivered an innovative and evolutionary step in the development of Chicago blues. Hoodoo Man Blues would become Delmark’s catalog best-seller and a Blues Hall of Fame “Classic of Blues Recording.”
For the Chicago / The Blues /
Today! Vol. 1 sessions, Wells didn’t tap into the material he recorded for Hoodoo Man, instead mixing a couple of inspired originals with a handful of cover songs. “A Tribute To Sonny Boy Williamson” is exactly that, a vibrant lyrical tribute to Wells’ mentor that features some blazing, heartfelt harp-work; strutting guitar; and an infectious, loping rhythm. “It Hurts Me Too” is a blues standard based on a Tampa Red song and popularized by Elmore James; Wells’ version showcases his strong, often-overlooked vocal skills along with some tasty Buddy Guy guitarplay.
Wells’ 1961 hit “Messin’ With the Kid” is revisited here, and while he didn’t play harmonica on the original, he lights it up here with a strong performance of what would become one of his signature songs. Two Wells originals – “Vietcong Blues” and “All Night Long” – were recorded first for Chicago / The Blues / Today!; the former is a smoldering slow-blues protest song featuring Guy’s jazzy, avant-garde fretwork while the latter offers up plenty of raging harp alongside Guy’s garrote git licks.
Joseph Benjamin “J.B.” Hutto was older than the other two artists on Chicago / The Blues / Today! Vol. 1 by a few years, and had immigrated from Georgia to Chicago as a young man. Hutto was drafted and served in the Korean War and, upon returning to Chicago, tried to make a go of it as a bluesman. He played drums with Johnny Ferguson and His Twisters, played around on the piano for a while, and finally settled on guitar, performing on the street with percussionist Eddie “Porkchop” Hines. The fledgling band added a second guitarist named Joe Custom and a harmonica player, George Mayweather, and started hitting the clubs as J.B. Hutto and His Hawks. But, after recording a handful of sides for local label Chance Records, Hutto became disillusioned by the music biz and quit, all but disappearing for the next eleven years…
Hutto reemerged in 1964 with a new, streamlined version of the Hawks featuring bassist Herman Hassell and drummer Frank Kirkland. This is the band that recorded with him for the Chicago / The Blues / Today! sessions, Hutto performing five new songs for the album. As a slide guitarist, Hutto was heavily influenced by legendary bluesman Elmore James, and it shows on songs like “Going Ahead” and “Please Help”, which close out side one of the vinyl LP. A proto-boogie, blues-rock stomp, “Going Ahead” is heavy on Hutto’s lightning string-bending while “Please Help” vamps up a storm with a semi-rockabilly motor, a chooglin’ rhythm, and shouted vocals above twangy chicken-pickin’.
Side two opens with “Too Much Alcohol”, an Elmore James-styled slide-guitar portrait that displays Hutto’s impressive six-string skills, his unique technique propelling street-smart lyrics above a lively, up-tempo rhythm. “Married Woman Blues” slows things down a bit, the mid-tempo tale showcasing some leftfield guitar styling and a straight-walking beat, but Hutto’s vocals are slightly-redlined and not as distinct as they should be, although it’s obvious that emotion is front-and-center in the performance. The wiry “That’s the Truth” pairs a rockabilly heart with an Ike Turner-inspired boogie-blues locomotive rhythm and classic R&B shouter vocals to create a helluva good time! Although less well-known than the other two artists on Vol. 1, J.B. Hutto and His Hawks make a joyful noise nonetheless, their raw-boned studio performance providing a gritty, entertaining brace of songs.
Pianist Otis Spann literally grew up on blues music; his father Friday Ford was a pianist, and his mother, Josephine Erby, was a guitarist who played with artists like Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith. Spann started playing the piano at the tender age of seven, and was playing in bands in and around Jackson, Mississippi in his early teens. Moving to Chicago at the age of 17, he was mentored by bluesman Big Maceo Merriweather and performed around town both solo and with guitarist Morris Pejoe. He hooked up with the great Muddy Waters in 1952 and would spend much of the rest of his career splitting time performing with Waters, doing session work, and recording sporadically as a solo artist. Spann lent his talents to some of Waters’ biggest hits, including “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “I’m Ready”, and “Got My Mojo Working”.
At the time of these Vanguard recordings, Spann was already a seasoned performer. The pianist had released a number of singles and four full albums between 1960 and 1965 for labels like Chess, Prestige and Decca Records. His 1965 album, The Blues Never Die!, was already in the can before he recorded these sides for Vanguard, and featured contributions by Waters (under the pseudonym “Dirty Rivers”) and harpist James Cotton. Spann’s five songs for Chicago / The Blues / Today! were all new originals and, as best as my research could discover, most were never revisited on album again. The pianist was accompanied by a fellow Waters’ band member, drummer S.P. Leary, who provides a spare rhythmic framework for Spann’s jazz-flecked blues tunes.
Spann’s “Marie” is a spirited instrumental that runs the gamut from Chicago boogie to New Orleans jazz, crossing styles and tempos, the pianist’s fleet fingers dancing lively atop Leary’s steady timekeeping. “Burning Fire” is an impressively emotional performance, Spann’s mournful vocals supported by his minimal, but impactful piano-pounding and “S.P. Blues” is really an up-tempo ‘duet’ between Spann and Leary. A showcase for the drummer’s rhythmic chops, Leary’s drums are accompanied by some livewire ivories. The slow-burning blues of “Sometime I Wonder” feature Spann’s smoky vocals and some of his most imaginative piano-play while the album-closing boogie-woogie roadhouse bounce of the instrumental “Spann’s Stomp” proves why Waters relied on the pianist for years. Spann wasn’t the most impressive vocalist on the mid-‘60s Chicago blues scene, or even on this album, but he holds his own, turbocharging his vocals with emotion while his fingers do most of the talking.
The original three Chicago / The Blues / Today! volumes had a profound effect on rock musicians looking to the blues for inspiration. Brownsville Station’s Cub Koda – no slouch in the blues fanboy department – wrote of the albums for All Music Guide, “their effect on musicians was enormous. It’s fair to assume that most blues-influenced artists had all three volumes in their respective collections, and the songs on them ended up in the repertoires of everyone from Jimi Hendrix (Junior Wells’ “Rock Me”) to Led Zeppelin (a note-for-note copy of Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby”) to Steppenwolf (Junior Wells’ “Messin’ with the Kid”) and beyond,” Koda concluding that the reader should run out and buy them “because blues records seldom come as important, innovative, or just plain pleasurable to listen to as this set.”
Craft Recordings has plans to release the other two volumes of Chicago / The Blues / Today! on vinyl in the near future. Featuring artists like harp masters Big Walter Horton and James Cotton and guitarists Otis Rush and Homesick James, volumes two and three crackle with energy and musical variety. The three discs in the series, Koda wrote for All Music Guide, “accurately portrayed a vast cross section of the Chicago blues scene as one could hear it on any given night in the mid-‘60s.” Since this first volume was delayed by several months due to the vagaries of current vinyl production, the other two albums could show up anytime between now and the end of the planet.
Nevertheless, one red-hot disc of Chicago blues is better than none, and Chicago / The Blues / Today! Vol. 1 provides a tantalizing taste of the genre for newcomers while delivering musical comfort food for the old-school blues fan who may have missed these performances the first time around.
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