The third volume in the Catfish series of 'The Great Race Record Labels' is devoted to Okeh Records, the label responsible for starting the 'Race' chase with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" from 1920. Prior to that year, African-Americans were represented on cylinders and records, but they were primarily 'coon songs' or traditional themes. Mamie Smith started a craze alright, one which led to a glut of recordings by similar female singers in what we now call the 'classic' period. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox, and others followed for Paramount, Columbia, and naturally, Okeh. After the success found with Black record buyers in many Southern states, the labels organized 'field trips' where a producer would travel to locations like Atlanta, Dallas, and other cities, after advertising in newspapers that they were looking for talent, and set forth recording the artists that descended on them.
This set leads off with Texas Alexander doing the fine "I Am Calling Blues." Alexander's vocals were complemented on his recordings by guitarists of such stature as Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, and 'Little Hat' Jones, who also cut some brilliant sides under his own name. Bo Carter, part of the famous Chatmon family from Mississippi, is here with "Sorry Feeling Blues" and is followed by Champion Jack Dupree's "Gamblin' Man Blues." Lonnie Johnson's recognition as a stunning guitarist is well documented, and his "Life Saver Blues" shows excellent guitar work; from strongly rhythmic accompaniment to startling single string passes, and an expressive vocal style. 'Little Hat' Jones appears with his "Kentucky Blues," and his guitar works seamlessly around his voice, which goes from sung to spoken phrases in an instant. Charlie McCoy (yet another of Memphis Minnie's husbands - mentioned in the Columbia set) is especially strong on "You Gonna Need Me" and is joined by some fine fiddle work in a string band setting. The ever-popular Brownie McGhee is joined by longtime traveling companion and harmonica stalwart, Sonny Terry, on "Born For Bad Luck," which features Terry's wonderful harmonica.
Bo Carter's family, the Mississippi Sheiks, appear with "She's A Bad Girl," another string band tune with hilarious lyrics including the memorable line "there's a girl named Nell, when she walks down the street she don't smell so well" - worth the price for the laughs alone! Buddy Moss, from Atlanta, and a cohort of other Atlanta artists from this, and Volume 2 in the series, leaves a wonderful "Struggle Buggie," full of great guitar runs and some down-home percussion that re-emerged years later with the techniques used by Peck Curtis, who assisted Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson #2) on his stellar Trumpet sides. Hambone Willie Newbern, a powerful and influential artist, does the stunning "Shelby County Workhouse Blues" and makes way for Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues." Wide-ranging Blues variations are well-represented in every volume of this set, which include classic, Delta, Piedmont, Texas, Memphis, and other styles.
Reportedly the first Black male Blues singer to record (after Okeh found success with its 'Race' series) was Freddie Spruell, who shows some tongue-tied vocals in "Way Back Down Home," and Sippie Wallace is included doing the fine "Caldonia Blues." Wallace was later revered by Bonnie Raitt and others and made records over a long career. Sylvester Weaver, another from a long line of artists from the Atlanta area, is fine on "Chitlin' Rag Blues," and the one-of-a-kind vocal styling of Peter 'Doc' Clayton shows up in "Roaming Gambler," with Clayton telling of his penchant for games of chance.
Others with familiar names who recorded for Okeh and crop up on this third volume in 'The Great Race Record Labels' series are Memphis Minnie, Memphis Slim, Blind Boy Fuller, Tony Hollins, and more. Their strong performances are no less important to the rich fabric of recorded Blues from the earlier years in the 20th century, and the folks at Catfish have succeeded with all three discs in this set. Choosing excellent examples of differing Blues styles with remarkable sound quality, detailed liner notes from Dave Moore, and lengthy playing time on this CD as well, all three volumes will attract those looking for a primer in early Blues as well as those more versed and wanting to truss out their collections with some seldom heard artists. More info and ordering details are available by visiting the Catfish website at www.catfishrecords.co.uk
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.
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