What's not important is the cheesy cardboard sleeve (not shown) that these three discs come packed in, as it has little to do with the music, aside from listing the blues wizards in small print at the bottom. What is important is this; it's one of the finest compilations around focusing on Lillian MacMurray's Trumpet label and the cream of blues artists she worked with. Released in 2001 as a budget-priced 3-disc set from Big Eye Music in California, each of these items became available in individual form upon their release in 2000 on the Purple Pyramid imprint. Big Eye may well be just a redistribution center as all original packaging remains intact. Two out of the three were reviewed in short form by me toward the end of last year, but since it's now together as a set, I'll recap for anyone who missed those. Am I making sense yet? If not, stop me and I'll start over. Okay, on with the show...
Willie Love And His Three Aces
...is all about barrelhouse piano as played by a driving, possessed man who went by the name of Willie Love. Most famous perhaps for being a member of Sonny Boy Williamson's King Biscuit Entertainers, Love was what juke-joint blues was all about. Rugged and raw, ragged but right, the 18 tracks here spell it out for anyone unsure. Joined by a cast that includes Joe Willie Wilkins, Elmore James, and the teenager-at-the-time Little Milton Campbell on guitar, they ride along supporting the brimming vocals and sharp piano. A mix of slow blues, barrelhouse, and smoldering jump styles, this is Willie Love's entire output as a frontman. With his leather-like voice, the December 1951 session was a hallmark as it brought Love's piano together with Campbell's overdriven guitar, T.J. Green's brooding upright bass, and Junior Blackman quietly keeping things in check from behind his drumkit. High points are many as Milton's guitar breaks in with an early slash-and-burn style that hardly resembles his work of later years, and Willie Love was simply a master of downhome juke blues as evidenced on the storming "Vanity Dresser Boogie" and 17 others. His piano can also be heard to great effect on Sonny Boy's disc. It's a disappointment that Love's health, always a concern, became far worse shortly after his April 1953 date recorded in Texas. His voice was silenced in August of 1953 after years of hard drinking.
Sonny Boy Williamson
"I Ain't Beggin' Nobody"
...and you can believe that title. Who was he? Aleck, Rice, or Willie Miller? Or was he Aleck Ford as he also mentioned? Let's just call him Sonny Boy here, without the numerical tag he is most often listed with to differentiate him from the other one. Yes, there was another Sonny Boy, but he's not on this set of music. Our Sonny Boy may have been a teller of very tall tales. but he managed one of the most expressive, unamplified harmonica styles blues has ever known. Added to his gift on the small instrument he made his living with, he was blessed with a voice that could convince you of practically anything, and his songwriting is still regarded as some of the finest ever, inside the idiom, or out. Recorded in 1953 and '54, the 15 tracks on this CD don't overlap with Arhoolie's excellent "King Biscuit Time" set. From the opening of "Cat Hop" to the closer, Sonny Boy was in tip-top shape and assisted by Joe Willie Wilkins, Willie Love, and a host of others. If you're familiar with his Chicago work for the Chess Brothers, but have none of Sonny Boy's Trumpet catalog in your collection, you need this disc. Singing mightily as he led his band through riveting drags and swinging shuffles, Sonny Boy's harp was well in front where it belonged, and the characters towing the line stayed with him every step of the way. "No Nights By Myself" is close to his finest moment over a lengthy recoding career, it's simply as beautiful as "Mighty Long Time," on the Arhoolie compilation.
Big Joe Williams
"Big Joe Williams & Friends"
...is a 15 track set that collects Big Joe's Trumpet sides interspersed with cuts from the Huff brothers, Luther and Percy, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup masquerading under an assumed name, and a lone side by the enigmatic Bobo Thomas. Big Joe Williams reinvented blues guitar by tacking an extra three strings on the standard six-string model, and may well be the only man who mastered the odd nine-string instrument. With a booming and raffish voice, plus chops to spare, Big Joe was joined by T.J. Green's rumbling bass as he blew through "Over Hauling Blues" and five more tracks that MacMurray issued, and the wonderful unissued pairing of "Friends And Pals" and "Juanita." Arthur Crudup, who used the alias of Elmer James when he recorded for the label, is in the company of Wilkins and Sonny Boy, and an unknown bass player known only as Sam, but "Gonna Find My Baby" and the bristling "Make A Little Love With Me," both shuffle with relaxed power. The Huff brothers, with Luther providing startling mandolin-like guitar and his brother Percy adding fine rhythm work, are tough and stark on their four cuts. Luther's drawn-out vocal phrasing was one of a kind, and gripping on "1951 Blues," while somewhat stoic on "Bull Dog Blues." Bobo Thomas is still almost a complete unknown. After years of blues research, who he was, where he came from, and how, still remain a mystery. One thing is sure, his version of the old favorite made enough of an impression on Lillian for her to add his "Catfish Blues" as the flip side to Elmore's first waxing of "Dust My Broom," and sadly left out. Why either man recorded only one side for MacMurray is another mystery, with more than a few theories, but Thomas was up to the task and managed his place in history.
As a postscript, Arthur Crudup recorded earlier for the Victor label as part of the Bluebird stable and later for Bobby Robinson's Fire imprint, and Sonny Boy rekindled his career by moving to Chicago and signing on with the Chess brothers. Big Joe Williams beat around Crawford, MS, making occasional trips to Europe and enjoyed a long life and due rewards after his many years of scuffling. Willie Love never made it far from Jackson, seeming content to play the joints around home, and perhaps it was his death that convinced Sonny Boy to take Mattie and head north. The Huff brothers and Bobo Thomas never found the fame due them considering what they accomplished on these sides. All in all, this is a wonderful set, from the extensive liner notes to the great period pictures that accompany each disc, and the two hours of playing time are solid from beginning to end. After receiving this and doing some research, www.dealtime.co.uk was the only site that listed it as a complete set, and while easily available as individual discs, the price on all three together can't be beat. Strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in the juke blues style that was highly popular around the south some five decades ago!
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.