Chess Records has been an erratic, convoluted giant in the blues world: fantastic product till the Sixties, then a period of decline and even bad taste during the middle and late Sixties, then suddenly, in the last year, new hope. The causes for this recent rejoicing are, on the one hand, Muddy Waters’ great new double-record set, Fathers and Sons, and on the other, the very promising Vintage Series of blues long salted away in the Chess family tape vaults. According to the company’s release sheet, “The Chess Vintage Series will be composed of rare released and unreleased Aristocrat, Chess and Checker sides; Parrot Records material which Chess purchased in 1959; and a few of the classic albums Chess has produced in the past that now deserve renewed attention.”
The six albums now available manage to fulfill all those conditions at the same time as they get the whole series off to a most auspicious start. Editor-producer T. T. Swan has compiled a little of everything: Little Walter’s rugged harmonica, the Wolf howlin’ for all he’s worth, the polished urban sound of Otis Rush, Elmore James sides mixing brisk bottleneck and sad saxophone — eight different blues masters in all, in performances ranging from the merely good to the sublimely great.
The two reissue albums should be mentioned first. Be advised that Evil is actually Howlin’ Wolf’s first album, Moanin’ in the Moonlight, repackaged and rearranged; ditto the Muddy release, on the market over a decade as The Best of Muddy Waters. There’s really nothing new to say about these two. They are simply among THE handful of classic Chicago blues albums. Hear Muddy, back when he was still more Mississippi than Chicago, wailing on “Hoochie Coochie,” “Rollin’ Stone,” “Honey Bee,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and eight other mojo workouts, while the Wolf chokes and moans through “How Many More Years,” the “Smokestack Lightnin'” that every white blues group has stolen, “Evil,” “Forty-Four” and more (even if a couple of Wolf’s tunes were actually recorded in Memphis). If you don’t own these two yet, you should.
Among the remaining albums, the set by Little Walter Jacobs (who died in 1968) rates most attention. For over a decade, blues collectors all over the world have been clamoring for Chess to release a second collection of Little Walter’s Checker sides to complement his phenomenal first disc, The Best of Little Walter. Now here it is, 15 numbers strong, and the wait was worth it. Jacobs was the man — the harp genius whose easy-going but pungent style became the Chicago mainstay, and from whom everybody from Junior Wells to Paul Butterfield took his chops. Hate to See You Go also draws from Little Walter’s peak sides of the Forties; you’ll hear such luminous backers as Muddy, Bo Diddley, Otis Spann and, on drums, Fred Below. A moment of respectful silence for that last gentleman — Below arguably being the best blues drummer going. He’s there on nearly every cut — hanging back a bit, pushing ahead a tad, yet always holding everything in place too.
The stand-out tracks are a harsh and sad “Blue and Lonesome” (with, I think, Luther Tucker earning guitar honors); “Everybody Needs Somebody” for Jacob’s beautiful echoing harp and vocal growl: “Everything’s Going to Be Alright” for Spann’s dancing piano and the two-guitars punctuation; plus two tunes that really jump, “Oh Baby” and my favorite, “Mellow Down Easy,” with harp and semi-African drums just naturally laying you in the groove, down and dirty.
The way things are, however, what with the current Albert King boom, the album that’ll probably sell best is Door to Door. He performs on eight of its 14 cuts, three from Parrot (recorded in Chicago in 1953) and the rest from St. Louis, 1961. The changes rung in King’s voice and guitar between those two sessions are merely miraculous. For Parrot, King’s singing was light and uninteresting, and the guitar sounds like somebody else was playing — one of those standard, characterless blues guitarists. (Only Johnny Jones on piano makes the three cuts worth listening to more than once.) Then you get to 1961, and damned if it ain’t A. King after all — mellow yet forced-out vocal, his straight-arrow guitar splitting the bulls-eye every time. Two songs are absolute sapphires: “Wild Woman,” with King’s fingers and vocal chords in a lively duet; and a get-it-on, can’t-sit-down, Howlin’ Wolf-Willie Dixon rocker, “Howlin’ for My Darling,” complete with trumpet, saxes, and staccato beat.
Otis Rush, another steel-string southpaw, handles the remaining numbers. Not so much on guitar, Rush makes it all the way to the top of the basis of his vocalizing, which manages to be strangled and painful, precise and lovely all at once. (He was overwhelmed and badly obscured by the poor Bloomfield-Gravenites production on his recent Cotillion album.) Rush recorded mostly for Cobra between 1956-1958, but he also cut several sides for Chess in 1960, six of them reissued or released for the first time on Door to Door. The two that matter most: “All Your Love,” a remake of his earlier Cobra hit — city blues with solid Latin rhythm from Willie Dixon and Odie Payne — and the all-time classic, “So Many Roads.” Along with “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” that superb number guarantees Rush immortality; the band is completely together, and Rush literally chokes with emotion — but beautifully!
Then there’s the album by Rice Miller, Sonny Boy Williamson II, the King Biscuit Time showman himself, who passed in 1965. Numerous Williamson albums, of course, are on the market already, but one more can’t hurt since Bummer Road offers a wealth of newly-discovered unreleased material, including umpteen takes and partials — a whole studio thing — of a number which Sonny Boy names “‘Little Village,’ motherfucker, ‘Little Village‘!” over the objections of his producer. Besides that, the disc features Williamson’s wild, punchy-boxer singing, his wry and witty lyrics, and his spare, seemingly casual harp technique (on the road to Dylanesque, as opposed to Little Walter’s saxophone-complexity). Dig “Lonesome Cabin,” slow and solid, with Spann and Below doing it again; the weird, sexy “Santa Claus,” as ironic in its way as his brilliant “Fattening Frogs for Snakes”; the funky, not-so-funny “Temperature 110”; and the album’s closing number, “This Old Life,” mournful and moving, on the order of “Mighty Long Time,” cut low these many years ago for the now-defunct Trumpet label.
Last (and there is no least with these six), Whose Muddy Shoes serves up nine tunes by Elmore James and five by John Brim. James is as justly famous as Brim is unjustly unknown. Refining Robert Johnson’s bottleneck style, James perfected a sound which has long since entered the blues tradition; however, he wasn’t at his best recording for Chess-Checker — too much saxophone and not enough slide guitar to suit me. Some numbers of interest, however: a slowed–down version of the Johnson-James standard, “Dust My Broom”; an infectiously happy jumptune, “Madison Blues” (“Put on your Madison blue shoes…”); and high point of the whole disc, “The Sun Is Shining,” with Johnny Jones drifting across the treble keys while James himself delivers deeply emotional vocal and cutting, right-on guitar.
Equally interesting are John Brim’s five numbers — mainly because any Brim sides are hard to come by; he never recorded much and hasn’t even been playing often since the early Sixties. Brim is/was a limited guitar player and vocalist; but when prodded by the ensemble of Below, Little Walter, and Robert J. Lockwood, he too could get into it. Fortunately, four of the tunes here feature that combination, most convincingly on “Rattlesnake” and “Ice Cream Man”; and the fifth number is Brim’s earlier Parrot gem, “Tough Times” (with Jimmy Reed in a rare appearance blowing backup harp).
“Tough times is here once more…” That’s the way Brim sang it in 1953. Since then, the blues have fallen on even harder times — but you’d never suspect it from Chess’ memorable Vintage Series.
So think about it. Not only might the sales persuade Chess to keep on — after all, Buddy Guy, J. B. Lenoir, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, and numerous others are waiting in the wings — but dig this: if you get hooked into the blues listening to the Cream go after “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” or to Mick Jagger moan “Little Red Rooster,” or to Led Zeppelin crucify “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” then you have a revelation coming, a rare chance to hear the real Chicago blues.