Third Man Records offers a definitive edition of the very first major festival dedicated entirely to the blues
Held over the first three days of August 1969, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was the first major event dedicated exclusively to blues music.
Put together by University of Michigan students Cary Gordon (no relation) and John Fishel, with support from the school and invaluable guidance provided by blues insider Bob Koester – then the owner of Chicago’s legendary Jazz Record Mart store and founder of Chicago blues label Delmark Records – this inaugural event featured two-dozen artists performing before an estimated audience of 10,000 on the school’s athletic field.
In an email interview with Rock & Roll Globe, John Fishel’s younger brother Jim, offers his memories on the festival. “My brother John was one of the festival organizers, so I knew my teenage friends and I would be put to work (and we were as festival hosts for Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Mama Thornton and Arthur Crudup). So as we were leaving Cleveland for Ann Arbor, we made a last-minute decision to bring along a portable tape recorder. It wasn’t planned out or a professional set-up. We certainly didn’t think we were capturing history. We were just teenage blues fans looking to make a personal memento. When the music started, we hit record and hoped for the best…but we got lucky.”
Fishel recorded the festival in its entirety from both the audience and the stage, and the tapes sat in his basement for nearly 50 years until recently released by blues fan and musician Jack White on his independent Third Man Records label. Fishel recalls that “about a decade ago, my son Parker (who co-produced the release with me) discovered the reels in my basement. An archivist, he began preserving the tapes at WKCR, the world-renowned radio station at Columbia University. Listening through the tape transfers, we were both blown away by how powerful the music still sounded.”
Continuing, Fishel says “it was Parker’s idea to approach Third Man Records. They have a proven track record with the blues, historical reissues, and innovative packaging – plus the festival being in Ann Arbor, it was kind of a hometown project for them. The label’s three principals – Jack White, Ben Blackwell, and Ben Swank – immediately dug the music and understood the importance of the festival. More importantly, they wanted to do it right and make sure artists were paid. It took almost eight years to clear performances, restore the tapes, and prepare the release. The legend of the festival was a lot to live up to, but we’re all proud of the way it turned out. We really wanted to make something that reflected and represented the blues community that came together to make that 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival so special.”
According to the album’s liner notes, the original monaural tapes from the festival underwent an all-analog restoration process prior to digitization, stating “these are field recordings in the literal sense of the term: audience chatter is audible and there are some technical problems that proved difficult to fix. Every effort has been made to improve the sound without sacrificing the integrity of the performances.” The album’s mono production and rough sonic quality may sound alien to contemporary audiences accustomed to over-produced, highly-compressed digital recordings, but it also provides as honest a document of the festival as a fan could hope for.
Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 preserves original performances by 22 artists; sadly, no recording exists of the performance by country bluesman Sleepy John Estes with Yank Rachell, and the estate of guitarist Freddie King asked that his performance be withheld from the album. At the request of his family, guitarist Otis Rush’s performance is actually from the 1970 festival. Still, Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 offers an impressive line-up of talent. There are a number of revelatory performances on the Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969, beginning with the great, underrated Roosevelt Sykes’ “Dirty Mother For You,” a ribald song with bawdy, double-entendre lyrics and Sykes’ typically impish, New Orleans jazz-flavored piano licks.
AUDIO: Roosevelt Sykes performs “Dirty Mother for You” at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival
J.B. Hutto is another often overlooked Chicago blues performer, an acolyte of the great Elmore James who would take slide-guitar to another level. Hutto’s skill is evident on “Too Much Alcohol,” a rowdy, shambolic performance that makes up with pure kinetic energy what it lacks in sonic fidelity. Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins is a similarly obscure name outside of the Windy City, but his distinctive tone and elegant notes imbue “I Wonder Why” with a classic Chicago blues sheen. Harmonica wizard Junior Wells pays tribute to the influential Sonny Boy Williamson with the scorching “Help Me,” Wells displaying his own immense mastery of the instrument with a blustery, harp-driven shuffle.
The legendary B.B. King brings down the house with “I Got A Mind To Give Up Living,” the master’s nimble fretwork matched only by his soulful, emotional vocals. Mississippi Fred McDowell’s acoustic reading of “John Henry” stands out in contrast to the electric bluesmen (and women) on the stage, his trademark finger-picking laser-focused and otherworldly. The great Howlin’ Wolf brought an orchestra to the festival, including a brace of saxophones, but the Wolf’s larger-than-life presence and powerful vocals dominate a white-hot performance of “Hard Luck,” with Hubert Sumlin’s jagged guitar providing a fine counterpoint.
Muddy Waters commanded any stage he walked upon, from the seediest Southside Chicago club to the largest festival gathering, and Ann Arbor was no different. Leading a band that included guitarist Sammy Lawhorn and harp player Paul Oscher, Waters delivers a smoldering performance of “Long Distance Call.” Harp player Charlie Musselwhite was but a young pup in 1969, but he’d studied at the feet of the masters, so his instrumental romp “Movin’ and Groovin’” – backed by Junior Wells’ former band the Aces – sounds like a juke-joint on Saturday night. West Side Chicago legend Magic Sam weaves a spell with his electrifying “I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie),” which offers up plenty six-string wizardry while T-Bone Walker’s performance of his signature “Call It Stormy Monday” is rich with Walker’s jazz-flecked fretwork.
AUDIO: T-Bone Walker performs “Call It Stormy Monday” at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival
Big Mama Thornton was a powerful stage performer on par with Muddy and the Wolf, and her soaring take on “Ball and Chain” (with T-Bone Walker on guitar) displays why Janis Joplin wanted to be her. Drummer Sam Lay was one of a handful of truly legendary blues sidemen, but here he steps up on the microphone with a wonderful reading of “Key To the Highway” that offers a wealth of Southern soul. Another great guitarist, Texas blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, brings a gritty edge to his “Mojo Hand” with some lively guitar-pickin’ while influential Delta bluesman Son House closes out the set with an ethereal solo performance on his classic “Death Letter Blues.”
Does Fishel have a favorite memory of the festival? He tells Rock & Roll Globe that “the whole weekend blew my mind. I may have only been 18 years old, but even then I knew that it was special for all these artists to be in one place. Maybe it was because of the family reunion feeling backstage. They may have come from different places or played different styles of blues, but these musicians deeply respected one another. I realized it from the first night when I went into a crowded storage trailer that the artists were using as a place to hang. B.B. King was sitting with Big Mama Thornton, Junior Wells, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Roosevelt Sykes. They’re having a ball. And all of a sudden, B.B. gets out a portable cassette player and plays them “The Thrill Is Gone.” The song wouldn’t come out until December, but here he was holding an impromptu focus group!”
Continuing, Fishel says “I also remember Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf warmly greeting each other on Saturday afternoon. You always think of them as rivals, but there they were, sharing a beer against the chain-link fence. Big Joe Williams joined them, then Mississippi Fred McDowell. They were just sitting around enjoying each other’s company and catching up on things like grandchildren, the grind of life on the road, and the recent moon landing. It was just normal conversation, but it’s not every day you hear Howlin’ Wolf excitedly talking about the moon landing!”
The promoters worked quickly to organize a follow-up to the original festival in 1970, enlisting an equally-impressive line-up of performers that included talents like Buddy Guy, Carey Bell, Hound Dog Taylor, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lowell Fulson, Big Joe Turner, and others. Skipping a year, the festival was resurrected in 1972 by promoters Peter Andrews and John Sinclair, former manager of Detroit’s MC5 and a blues fan. Expanded to include other African-American musical genres, the event became known as the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival and, with the addition of headline acts like Ray Charles and Miles Davis, both the 1972 and ’73 festivals turned a profit.
Nevertheless, the original 1969 festival proved to be a groundbreaking event. Bruce Iglauer, founder of the legendary blues label Alligator Records, tells Rock & Roll Globe by email that “the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was a dramatically important event in blues history. It was the first time that many of these artists played for a large white audience, and nowhere better symbolized the youth ‘counterculture’ than Ann Arbor, so the location brought a hipness factor to the blues. The festival was brilliantly programmed, mixing fiery contemporary artists like Magic Sam and Luther Allison with acoustic and electric veterans like Howlin’ Wolf and Roosevelt Sykes. Young blues newcomers could get a sense of the depth and breadth of the tradition, and sense how deeply blues shaped rock. The whole blues world owes a debt to the organizers.”
Might there be more music from the Ann Arbor Blues Festival that we’ll be hearing? Fishel tells Rock & Roll Globe that “the short answer is yes. I recorded over sixteen hours of music from the festival, plus an impromptu concert that Mississippi Fred McDowell gave for me and some friends one night in the dorm room where he was staying on campus. And those are just one part of my collection. There are other phenomenal Ann Arbor recordings from 1970 and the benefits of 1971, as well as the smaller Miami Blues Festivals that my brother John and I organized from 1972-1975. Our imprint Americana Music Productions released one such recording from the great, under-appreciated blues singer Mable Hillery supported by the legendary Johnny Shines.”
In the liner notes to Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969, Jim Fishel writes of his efforts to record the event, “I figured it’d be an audio scrapbook to revisit at a quieter time. It certainly never crossed my mind that these ¼” mono tape recordings would ever be considered blues history!” Talking about the importance of the long-lost recordings, Fishel writes that he hopes that “these performances prove as revelatory today, inspiring a new generation of blues listeners, musicians, scholars, and fans. That’s the legacy of the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival.”
VIDEO: Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 trailer