Chicago Breakdown (Chicago Blues) by Mike Rowe
Chicago Breakdown, by Mike Rowe. London: Eddison, 1973; New York: Drake, 1975. Reprinted as
Chicago Blues: The City & the Music, New York: DaCapo, 1981.
Chicago Breakdown chronicles the city's storied blues history from the days of Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy into John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and then into the electrified era of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and many more in this expertly crafted teatise by Rowe, a British collector, Blues Unlimited contributor, and one of the leading cognoscenti on classic Chicago blues. Drawing from demographic and discographical data as well as his own interviews with the musicians, Rowe pieces together a history that is largely based on the genre's recorded legacy and organized by the musicians' record label affiliations (Bluebird, Chess, Vee-Jay, et al.) while also documenting the great migration and the strong ties of the postwar Chicago style to the Mississippi Delta. The music's 1950s heyday is described in the greatest depth, but Rowe also devotes a short chapter to "Chicago Today" (as of the early '70s when the text was written). The book concludes with an informative discussion of why it all happened in Chicago, along with record chart data, a discography, and a blues club map.
Classics of Blues Recordings--Albums
I Am The Blues -- Willie Dixon (Columbia, 1970)
Willie Dixon’s reputation rests primarily with his incomparable catalogue of compositions and secondarily with his outstanding work as a producer. During his early recording career he made some sides as a vocalist, with the Big Three Trio, the Four Jumps of Jive, or under his own name, but when he found his niche supplying material and session direction for the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Otis Rush, he pushed his own career as a featured artist to the background. When blues revival audiences of the 1960s grew savvy enough to recognize Dixon’s enormous behind-the-scenes contributions, Dixon was also astute enough to realize that now, rather than trying to market his songs to other singers, he could step out front and reap some glory and additional financial rewards for himself. I Am the Blues was one of the catalysts for his new venture as a singing bandleader. With his aptly named Chicago Blues All Stars behind him (including Walter Horton, Johnny Shines, and Mighty Joe Young), the maestro put his own stamp on nine of his songs made famous by Wolf, Muddy, Rush, and Willie Mabon (and, by this time, also in cover versions by the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Mose Allison, Johnny Rivers, Jeff Beck, Cream, the Rolling Stones, and others). While many critics were quick to agree with Dixon himself that he was not as strong a vocalist as the artists he had produced the songs for, the album became something of an instant monument as a portfolio of masterworks straight from the originator, and became a favorite among many Dixon fans. Tracks: 1. Back Door Man 2. I Can't Quit You, Baby 3. Seventh Son 4. Spoonful 5. I Ain't Superstitious 6. You Shook Me 7. (I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man 8. Little Red Rooster 9. Same Thing Willie Dixon, vocals & string bass with Walter Horton, harmonica; Lafayette Leake, piano; Mighty Joe Young and Johnny Shines, guitars; Sylvester Boines, electric bass; Clifton James, drums. Recorded in Chicago, 1969. Released as Columbia CS 9987 (LP) in 1970. --Jim O’Neal www.bluesoterica.com
Live Wire--Blues Power -- Albert King (Stax, 1968)
Live Wire--Blues Power captured a crucial moment in blues history when the music was captivating a new counterculture audience under the spell of a master bluesman who could not only bend the guitar strings beyond belief but could also impart the meaning of the blues through his stories and songs. “Blues Power” joined “flower power” as an anthem of the era, and no one was more a guru to the new movement than Albert King. San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium was the natural temple for King to spread the message to an adoring throng. Live Wire--Blues Power was recorded June 26-27, 1968, and became such an iconic album that Stax later released two more live albums from those two nights at the Fillmore. King worked his magic on and on, squeezing the nuances out of every note; one track goes on for ten minutes and another for eight-and-a-half, one of the first examples of such extended soloing ever issued on a blues record. Released as Stax STS 2003 (LP) in October 1968. -- Jim O’Neal www.bluesoterica.com
Ice Pickin' -- Albert Collins (Alligator, 1978)
Ice Pickin' was the album that sparked Albert Collins' belated rise to blues stardom, 20 years after the "Master of the Telecaster" recorded the first of his incendiary "cool" instrumentals, "The Freeze." Collins' trademark guitar attack had made him a favorite among fellow guitarists, but he had yet to achieve major success with audiences. That changed after Alligator teamed him with a unit of crack Chicago blues sidemen for Ice Pickin' and subsequent albums and tours. Collins responded by not only unleashing his explosive guitar licks but by proving that, given the proper encouragement and support, he could handle blues singing better than many -- perhaps including Albert himself -- thought he could. Previous albums had usually featured more instrumental than vocal numbers, but his Alligator debut included only two instrumentals. Collins' humor, an important element in his performances, was also on display in numbers such as "Master Charge" and "Conversation With Collins." Recorded in Chicago, May 22-25, 1978. Released on LP as Alligator AL 4713 in 1978; on CD as ALCD 4713 in 1990. --Jim O'Neal www.stackhouse-bluesoterica.blogspot.com
Classics of Blues Recordings--Singles or Album Tracks
Manish Boy -- Muddy Waters (Chess, 1955)
"Manish Boy" was one of a series of Chess singles that featured Muddy Waters convincingly touting his own virility ("spelled M-A-N, that represent man, no B-O-Y") ably (and verbally) assisted by an all-star crew with Junior Wells filling the harmonica spot usually held by Little Walter on Muddy's sessions. It was a solid stop-time followup to Muddy's "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" and Bo Diddley's 1955 hit "I'm a Man." The original composer credits for "Manish (later also spelled "Mannish") Boy" went to Muddy, Ellas McDaniel (Bo Diddley) and a young Chicago songwriter, Mel London, who ran several blues labels in subsequent years. The record hit the Top Ten in all three of the R&B charts Billboard magazine then published: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played in Juke Boxes, and Most Played by Jockeys. MUDDY WATERS AND HIS GUITAR Muddy Waters, vocal with Junior Wells, harmonica; Jimmy Rogers, guitar; Willie Dixon, bass; Fred Below, drums; vocal responses by band. Recorded May 24, 1955, Chicago. Released as Chess 1602 (78 and 45 rpm single). Discographical details from The Blues Discography 1943-1970.
Juke - -Little Walter (Checker, 1952)
"Juke" was the groundbreaking instrumental that established Little Walter Jacobs as a national recording star and brought unprecedented prominence to the harmonica as a prime instrument in the blues. Untold numbers of blues performers took up the harp in the wake of "Juke"'s 20-week run on the Billboard rhythm & blues charts. Other Chicago harmonicists had played similar tunes - -notably Snooky Pryor on the 1948 instrumental "Boogie," while Junior Wells said he played it as theme song in clubs -- but it was Walter who made it into a masterpiece, ushering in a new sound with his swooping, amplified attack. Walter was Muddy Waters' harmonica player at the time, and according to some accounts, "Juke" was recorded at the end of a Muddy session for Chess. However, studio logs indicate that Chess brought Walter in for his own session on another day, accompanied by Muddy and company (Jimmy Rogers and Elga Edmonds). The unexpected success of the record provided the inspiration for Walter to break away and launch his own career touring the country. "Juke" remains the only harmonica instrumental to ever reach No. 1 on the rhythm & blues charts. LITTLE WALTER and HIS NIGHT CATS Little Walter, harmonica; Muddy Waters; guitar; Jimmy Rogers, guitar; Elga Edmonds, drums. Recorded May 12, 1952, Chicago. Released on Checker 758 (45rpm and 78rpm) in 1952. Discographical details from The Blues Discography 1943-1970. -- Jim O'Neal
Cross Road Blues -- Robert Johnson (ARC/Vocalion, 1936)
Robert Johnson's 1936 recording of "Cross Road Blues" has become a central element in the story--real, imagined, or fabricated--of Johnson selling his soul to devil at the crossroads, as depicted on the big screen in the 1986 film Crossroads. Among the many problems with the tale, however, is the fact that in the lyrics to "Cross Road Blues," Johnson falls to his knees and asks the Lord for mercy, he sings nary a word about devil-dealing. The song became a rock classic when recorded by Cream in 1968; in the Cream version, Eric Clapton added a verse from Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues" containing the line "Goin' down to Rosedale." This in turn has sent many a believer to the town of Rosedale, Mississippi, in search of the crossroads, even though Johnson never sang of Rosedale in his crossroads song. Regardless of mythology and rock 'n' roll renditions, Johnson's record was indeed a powerful one, a song that would stand the test of time on its own. As was the case with some of Johnson's other songs, the record originally released in 1937 was not the version LP buyers heard when they bought the historic reissue album King of the Delta Blues Singers, which featured an alternate take of "Cross Road Blues." Robert Johnson, vocal and guitar. Recorded November 27, 1936, San Antonio, Texas. Take 1 released May 1937 on A.R.C. labels (Banner, Melotone, Oriole, Perfect, and Romeo) 7-05-81 and Vocalion 03519 (78 rpm). First reissued c. 1967 on a bootleg LP, Kokomo K-1000, Mississippi Delta Blues Singer. Take 2 first released on Columbia LP CL 1654, King of the Delta Blues Singers, in 1961. Both takes released on the Columbia boxed set The Complete Recordings (LP, CD, and cassette 46222), 1990. Discographical details of recording session are from Blues and Gospel Records 1890-1943. -- Jim O'Neal
The hottest of a bevy of guitarists to emerge from a veritable hotbed of blues guitar in Houston, Texas, Albert Collins was also the “coolest.” His searing, stinging guitar attack came to be marketed with icy images after the release of his first single, “The Freeze,” in 1958, was followed by “Defrost,” “Frosty,” “Thaw-Out,” and “Sno-Cone.” Born in Leona, Texas, on Oct. 1, 1932, Collins spent his adolescent years in Houiston's Third Ward, which was home at times to Johnny Copeland, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Lightnin' Hopkins, and many others. Three albums for the Imperial label, recorded at the instigation of Canned Heat's Bob Hite, raised Collins' profile in the late 1960s when he was based in Los Angeles, but he hit full stride with a series of acclaimed albums for Alligator Records beginning in 1978. He began touring and recording with the Icebreakers, a unit of top Chicago blues sidemen that later expanded to include future stars Debbie Davies and Coco Montoya, and rose to the upper echelons of the blues world. Always a powerful, explosive instrumentalist, Collins (the “Master of the Telecaster”) also developed a more effective vocal style while at Alligator. But it was his good-humored showmanship that he is probably best remembered for. His specialty was strolling the audience and wandering outside with a 150-foot cord, still wailing away on his Telecaster while the Icebreakers never missed a beat. As Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times: “His shows were often wild rides, intense performances that burst with his almost endless imagination. He was a master of the ecstatic moment, . . .” Collins died in Las Vegas on Nov, 24, 1993. -- Jim O'Neal www.stackhouse-bluesoterica.blogspot.com
Although Tommy Johnson left behind only a small body of recorded work, he was one of the most influential blues artists in Mississippi. Born in Hinds County, Mississippi, between Terry and Crystal Springs, in January 1896 (according to the 1900 census), Johnson performed with his brothers LeDell, Clarence, and Mager, and with Charlie McCoy other leading bluesmen in the Jackson area. Some formative years spent around Drew in the Delta left a strong impression on Johnson, especially via the music of Charley Patton. Perhaps because he was in Jackson, where talent scout H.C. Speir was signing most of Mississippi's first generation of blues recording artists, Johnson beat Patton to the studio and etched his reputation and impact permanently into the history books. The six songs from Johnson's three 1928 singles for Victor (“Cool Drink of Water,” “Big Road Blues,” “Maggie Campbell Blues,” “Bye Bye Blues,” “Big Fat Nana Blues,” and “Canned Heat Blues”) were kept alive by a legion of Johnson followers long after Johnson's recording career ended prematurely in 1929. How well the records actually sold is a matter for consideration - they are extremely rare among collectors - and according to the testimony of many of Johnson's proteges, they learned the songs and Johnson's signature falsetto vocals and hypnotic guitar phrasings not from records but from hearing Johnson in person. Why he never recorded again is another puzzle - reportedly he believed he had “sold out” his rights, but his well-known propensity for consuming intoxicants of any sort -- alcohol, “canned heat” (Sterno), or “jake” (Jamaican ginger extract, the subject of his final recording, “Alcohol and Jake Blues”) -- undoubtedly took its toll. The fabled scenario of the Mississippi bluesman selling his soul to the devil (universally associated with Robert Johnson) actually came from a story about Tommy told by his older brother LeDell to folklorist David Evans. Johnson still continued to perform on the streets and at house parties and local gatherings around Crystal Springs and Jackson. He died in Jackson on Nov. 1, 1956.
Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter)
The legacy of Huddie William Ledbetter looms large in the course of American folk music, thanks to the unparalleled repository of songs he was able to record and to several classics he contributed to the genre. Ledbetter's records appeared under his nickname, Leadbelly, the spelling of which has been noted as Lead Belly by the Lead Belly Society in accordance with the way Ledbetter himself signed his name. Born in Mooringsport, Lousiana, on Jan. 20, 1888, Ledbetter learned a number of instruments but specialized in the 12-string guitar. He spent time with Blind Lemon Jefferson as a youngster and might have had a more blues-focused career had he been able to continue to play the streets, dances, and red light districts of Shreveport and Dallas, but a violent lifestyle landed him in prison on more than one occasion, and while he serving time for murder in the Angola, Louisiana, prison, folklorist John Lomax showed up in search of songs for the Library of Congress. In 1933 Lead Belly, who had absorbed a huge repertoire of songs in his travels and in prison, recorded the first of hundreds that John and his son Alan Lomax would collect from him over the years - work songs, childrens' music, spirituals, folk ballads, pop, cajun, and cowboy songs, as well as the blues that often captured his deepest emotions. After his release from prison Lead Belly went to work for John Lomax in Texas and later moved to New York, where he became a celebrity on the emerging folk music scene. His versions of “Midnight Special,” “Cottonfields,” “Rock Island Line,” and “Irene Goodnight” inspired folk, pop, and rock performers for generations to come, while his life experiences provided plenty of material for such blues gems as “Fannin Street” and the scathing indictment “The Bourgeois Blues.” Ledbetter died in New York in Dec. 6, 1949. -- Jim O'Neal www.stackhouse-bluesoterica.blogspot.com