At one time, laying claim to the title Queen of the Blues was of paramount importance to powerhouse singers like Koko Taylor and Etta James, because it translated into financial success, if only within their market niche. Now that they understandably crave wider recognition after their many years of notable work, however, such a designation might well prove a roadblock to success because of the blues’ reputation as an arcane music.
Koko Taylor, keenly aware of the realities of the contemporary music market, completely revamps her overall sound on Jump for Joy. Rather than laying out her patented blues-shouter vocals over a straight blues accompaniment, she treats her listeners to thoroughly modern music full of textures and layers. Songs like “It’s a Dirty Job,” a duet with label mate Lonnie Brooks, “Jump for Joy,” which echoes Taylor’s first hit, “Wang Dang Doodle,” and “I Don’t Want No Leftovers,” the album’s closer, feature blues lyrics on top of funk rhythms, with rock-based guitar fills and lines punctuated by a fat horn section. Unfortunately, muddied arrangements and unbalanced mixing break down this approach in a number of songs on the album.
Etta James is a little further along in her effort to come up with a more contemporary sound. Stickin’ to My Guns pays homage to James’s roots in that the lyrics are highly personal and blues oriented, but the accompaniment is completely contemporary. We’re talking about a nonstop dance party filled with house rockers like “Love to Burn” and turn-the-lights-down-low, slow-grind numbers like “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).” But to say that this album is blues, in the traditional sense of the word, is a bit of a stretch. If you’re looking for the Etta James of the Chess years, you’re bound to be disappointed. But if you check your preconceived notions at the door, you’re gonna have a good time.
Unlike Taylor and James, veteran British bluesman John Mayall looks back to the past in his latest work, A Sense of Place; he explores the gamut of blues styles — Delta, Louisiana, Chicago, retro-Sixties — as well as delivers contemporary-sounding numbers like “Sensitive Kind” and “Black Cat Moan.” The contemporary tunes sound best — hearing Mayall struggle with tunes like the Jimmy Reed sound-alike “Without Her” is a bit hard to take. Overall, the arrangements and mixing are exceptional; they leave lots of room for Mayall’s distinctive vocals and for instrumental solos, unlike most contemporary blues. Mayall does a great job of capturing the early Chess feel in this recording while still managing both to update the sound and to put even greater emphasis on an ensemble approach to the music.
Though more a documentary than a blues record, Blues in the Mississippi Night provides the perfect counterpoint to the three previous records. The album is an Alan Lomax “field recording” of the first-generation blues artists Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson talking about the origins of their music and the blues in general. It contains spontaneous performances by each — three-way conversations about the tribulations of sharecropping and the horrors of prison-farm and levee-camp life in the early part of the twentieth century. The stories are delivered with an alarmingly dark humor that highlights the true spirit of the blues as well as with an appreciation of how the blues are an outlet for both good and bad feelings. Broonzy puts it best: “I always believed [the blues] was really a heart thing, from his heart, you know, and it was [a singer] expressing his feelings about how he felt to the people.” Included in the package is a booklet that contains an introduction by Lomax, a transcription of the recording and brief biographies of the principal players.
The blues may have started decades ago as a music firmly rooted in misery and misfortune, but the current generation of artists has expanded the music well beyond its origins. Where the blues will wind up and whether they will ever achieve broad-based recognition is — still, at this late date — anybody’s guess.