Unlike what many people believe, the blues did not just originate in the cottonfields of Mississippi. During it's early development, the music scenes of several cities where also very important. One of the most important that is nowadays often forgotten was musical hub St. Louis. One of the reasons for this is the fact that piano blues rather than guitar blues was the most popular form of blues in St. Louis. “Barrelhouse” Buck McFarland was one of those pianists that played the brothels and barrelhouses (a barrelhouse is a bar that consist of a room where the liquor is served from a plank spread across a row of barrels). He made recordings in the 1920's and 1930's, but none of those have survived. The only well preserved songs of his are the 17 that he recorded on August 6, 1961, that were finally released for the first time in 2007 on the Alton Blues album. There are some other recordings (for examples, see below), but they're of very poor sound quality in comparison, despite the fact that they were recorded in a professional studio and the Alton Blues session took place in McFarlands home. At this session, his percussive bass patterns, steady rumble with one heavy hand, chords (with the other) and single notes hammering like an old typewriter are beautifully captured. When he sings, he wails with a voice that has been described as mahogany. He does everything well, from slow, painful blues songs to uptempo instrumental boogie woogie songs that probably brought the house down in the bars and brothels where he used to play. Alton Blues also contains five minutes of him telling stories of the olden days of the blues scene in St. Louis, featuring several artist yet to come.
Slim Harpo sang and played guitar and harmonica in a sometimes languid, sometimes cheerful style that always feels good. He's often compared to the more successful Jimmy Reed, but I like Harpo better and find his style to be more distinct. He was covered a lot by British bands after the Rolling Stones did his first single, King Bee, a classic sexual blues metaphor. They would later do a version of Harpo's Shake Your Hips on Exile On Main Street. Originally born as James Moore, he dropped out of high school in his mid-teens after his parents died to play harmonica in bars and juke joints, on street corners, and at rent parties and plantation picnics as Harmonica Slim. When he started recording after working with his brother-in-law Lightnin' Slim, he had to change his name because there was already a Harmonica Slim on the West Coast. Moore's wife Lovelle (who also co-wrote a number of his songs) came up with Slim Harpo, and that became his name for the rest of his career.
At the tender age of five, Walter Horton was given his first harmonica by his father. During the later 1920's he moved to Memphis where he won a local talent contest. He later claimed he played with the Memphis Jug Band in 1927 as “Shakey Walter”, but his age makes this statement questionable. He also claimed to have played with Robert Johnson in the 1930's and did in fact accompany Muddy Waters in the 1950's. He also boasts of teaching Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II, despite the latter being twenty years older. Walter Horton was one of the first to amplify his harmonica. During the 1940's he moved back and forth between Chicago and Memphis, working day jobs and playing wherever he could. In the early fifties he cut some records for Sun Records, that would later become known as the birthplace of white rock & roll with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
Later on Walter joined Muddy Waters' band but was fired after a few years for showing up drunk or playing too many side gigs, according to you talk to about the subject. He also played with Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Jimmy Rodgers, Big Mama Thornton and Sunnyland Slim in those days. His first solo record was released in 1965, was produced by Willie Dixon (who once called him “the best harmonica player I ever heard”) and featured Buddy Guy on guitar. Fifteen years later he had a cameo in The Blues Brothers accompanying John Lee Hooker, a year before his death. His style of harmonica was a definite influence on such younger players as his protégé Carey Bell and white blues player Charlie Musselwhite. Personally, I love how he can play this beautiful slow, downhearted blues and then switch up his tempo in an instant, suddenly changing the mood of the music and making you feel it too.
I first stumbled upon this guitar player when I was looking up some names that played at a festival that I never went to in the end (I think I was sick). I found one track on the internet, the fantastic song 'Drinking Straight Tequila'. I burned it at the end of some Hendrix CD that I used to listen a lot to while cycling to school. After a while I didn't listen to it so much anymore. I'm guessing this is about 7 or 8 years ago. I forgot all about this man named Cain. Then, a year and a half ago I went to upstate New York to visit a friend of a friend that was also really into the blues. This middle-aged lady took me to several concerts, one of which was the Chenango Blues Festival. Here I saw Chris Cain performing, and it wasn't until then that I remembered I already knew that one song of his.
Listening to that one song, I had never thought he was so young (well, relatively speaking) or that he was white. Being both alive and white makes him a minority in this list that is mostly comprised of dead black man. Having seen him live definitely elevated my opinion of this laid back guitar virtuoso whose style (both singing and picking) is clearly influenced by B.B. and Albert King. Even when his lyrics are more of the downhearted kind, most of his songs are still inflected with a pleasant atmosphere that is most at home at a house party or barbecue. His concert has the same kind of atmosphere, with him telling jokes in between songs that reminded my New York friend of the old Jewish comedians that made the rounds in the Catskills back in the day (roughly near the area of the festival), a humour and wordplay than can be found in his lyrics from time to time as well (I'm living on a fault line right here at home/Everything that happens seems like the fault is mine alone).
Otis Spann is mostly known as a great sideman, and he deserves all the praise he can get for his pianowork with Muddy Waters from 1952 to 1969, playing on and contributing to many of Waters' greatest recordings. He also backed Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley and was an integral part of the Chess sound of the '50's. But as a solo artist he made some great records as well. Among these are the excellent Walking The Blues and Otis Spann is the Blues, both culled from the same sessions in 1960. Not done for Chess though, as they strangely didn't think much of his powerful vocals and didn't release earlier recordings for years.
Spann grew up in Mississippi where he learned to play the piano in his stepfather's church. By 1944 he played in a local blues group influenced by Big Maceo, who took him under his wing when he moved to Chicago a few years later. He claims to have already had a career as a footballer and boxer by then, but he's known for telling stories. After never really taking of as a solo artist and continuing to play for Muddy Waters, he gave up his spot in the band to Pinetop Perkins in 1969 due to ill health. He died of cancer in 1970.
Even if you think you've never heard a song by Big Mama Thornton, you probably have. Both Elvis and Janis Joplin made songs by miss Thornton famous, respectively 'Hound Dog' and 'Ball and Chain'. While Joplin really makes the cover her own, Elvis's version, or at least his vocals, just pale to the ferocious roar of Big Mama. Born Willie Mae Thornton, she acquired the moniker 'Big Mama' because of her 350-pound physique and the way she moved in two days in 1948 from opening for one of Johnny Otis' package shows the first night and being the headliner the second.
Willie Mae grew up singing in her father's church, and taught herself to play drums and harmonica. At fourteen she ran away to join Sammy Green's Hot Harlem Revue, with whom she toured the South throughout the 1940's. In 1951 she cut the original of 'Hound Dog', growling ferociously from the first note. The fury and contempt are palpable. Her big booming voice became her trademark and it is her passionate singing that makes so many of her performance more than memorable, no matter the lyrics, songwriting or backing band. Although she has some great players backing her from time to time, like Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and James Cotton on Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band (also released as with the Muddy Waters Band) and Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and other greats on Live in Europe. Or elsewhere, like in the clip below where she exchanges harmonica solo's/riffs with John Lee Hooker and Big Walter Horton.
Last year I went on a student trip to St. Louis as part of a course on the American city, and St. Louis is a prime example of it's demise, from center and periphery to just periphery and small islands, highways right through the former center (insanity to Dutch me) and an empty downtown. But I digress. While there, of course I had to visit a blues club, and Beale on Broadway seemed the best way to go. That night, a certain young (well, relatively speaking) blues guitarist from Southside Chicago was playing by the name of Eric “Guitar” Davis with his band The Troublemakers. I was sold from the first lick. A clear disciple of Buddy Guy, who even gave him his first guitar lesson when he was ten, his emotional style of playing rubs me the right way. Apparently he still mostly frequents the Illinois-Missouri area, although he has toured all over Europe according to his website.
The one that belongs to the most minorities on the list, being alive, white, female, young and having been seen live by me (and that I have a signed CD of). I saw Eden Brent at the 2009 Chenango Blues Festival, where she started out with a crack about how she heard how up north there was a recession going on. They didn't notice any difference in the poverty in Mississippi though. Then she started playing her piano and I was sold. Brent plays the boogie woogie, although on her albums she sometimes dabbles in jazz and soulful ballads. The infectious piano playing is almost always present though, as is often a sense of humor, like in her serenade to fried chicken (“such a delightful bird”).
Eden Brent grew up in Mississippi in a family that wasn't exactly poor. At a very young age she wanted to play the piano, so young even that at first her sisters piano teacher refused to teach her because she was considered too young. When she was older she discovered her real passion in live when she heard Abie “Boogaloo” Ames play his brand of blues and boogie woogie and this old black man became the single biggest influence on the life of this young white woman. They developed a deep friendship, he taught her the blues and boogie woogie and they toured together all over Mississippi. Besides becoming a great piano player Eden also became a good singer and songwriter in her own right, though she's also very skilled at interpreting the classics. She's part of a generation that can keep the blues alive for a lot longer, although where it's going after that remains uncertain.
Eddie C. Campbell was born in the great state of Mississippi (well, when it comes to music. For everything else...), but moved to Chicago when he was ten, just as the blues scene there was as big as could be. Two years later he was already jamming with Muddy Waters. Growing up, he started playing with and became influenced by West Side guitarists like Luther Allison and Magic Sam, which can be heard today still in his ringing guitar playing style. The difference between him and most of those cats is that he's still alive and kicking, keeping the Chicago West Side style alive. For large portions of his live, he did so while permanently living in Europe. He has returned to the Windy City somewhere in the 90's though.
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