CD Review (shorts)|
A Small String Of Catfish
by Craig Ruskey
Review date: May 2001
1999 KBA Award Winner|
Achievement for Blues on the Internet
Presented by the Blues Foundation
Catfish Records, in a few short years, has stepped miles ahead of the competition in reissuing historical blues from an era long past. Leroy Carr (Catfish 108) has a fine 2-disc set, 'Sloppy Drunk,' from 1998 that covers 44 tracks and although a few years old, I included it as a companion to the more recent Scrapper Blackwell issue (Catfish 152). Born in Nashville, TN, around 1899, Carr eventually settled in Indianapolis in the 1920's after traveling with a circus and a brief stint in the armed forces. His name would forever be remembered if only for penning the classic "How Long, How Long Blues," 'which reportedly sold over one million copies. Fortunately, there is much more to this artist than a one-hit-wonder as this disc shows. Coupling a swinging piano attack with a wry voice, Carr was a songwriter with many stories to tell and in teaming with Scrapper Blackwell, a guitarist of enormous stature, the pair managed many hits in their time together. As a duo, they juggled immense popularity, busy recording schedules, jook joint performances, bootleg operations, arguments, and much more in their years together. Running the gamut from introspective blues ("You Got To Reap What You Sow" and "Six Cold Feet In The Ground") to the comical, near-hokum approach ("Box Car Blues" and "Papa Wants A Cookie") the 44 sides compiled here prove a wealth of talent. Although the partnership was a success on record, Leroy and Scrapper had their personal difficulties. At one session they went in together and a disagreement ensued, the two were separated; both finishing their studio time recording solo. Blackwell was reportedly dissatisfied with getting less than his fair share of credit and financial rewards as he claimed to have written many titles with his sister, Mae Malone. Whatever the disagreements, when Carr died from Nephritis due to his extreme intake of alcohol, Scrapper mourned the loss of his longtime friend with "My Old Pal Blues" at a July session. What rings true in this fine 2 CD set from Leroy Carr is excellent songwriting, the fine two-fisted piano work he showed and the impact he had after joining forces with Scrapper Blackwell. A wide ranging cast owes debt to them including Robert Johnson, Big Maceo, Tampa Red, J.B. Hutto, Jimmy Rogers, plus the many others who adapted songs and styles from the pair to fit themselves.
Scrapper Blackwell was born in 1903 in North Carolina and was still a child when his family moved to Naptown. Credited later as being the man responsible for moving the blues from the country to the city, Blackwell was a guitarist of highly impressive skills and a sensitive songwriter. 'Bad Liquor Blues' (Catfish 152) is a fine 21 track testament to his wide ranging abilities and importance in both areas. Scrapper's "Kokomo Blues" from a 1928 recording session was reworked by Kokomo Arnold, another guitarist and bootlegger as well, and later by Robert Johnson into "Sweet Home Chicago," which became the anthem for the Windy City. An intricate player, Blackwell was known for stunning treble runs, driving rhythms, and powerful string snaps that stunned the competition. His rolling "A Blues" and the equally impressive "D Blues," both instrumental pieces from a 1935 date, show the evidence to great effect. His touching "Blues That Make Me Cry" and "Morning Mail Blues" from 1934 prove him to be rather adept at the piano as well, and the two-part "Trouble Blues" will satisfy any curiosity as to how deft he was with guitar in hand. The previously mentioned "My Old Pal Blues" is included here and following the death of Leroy Carr, Scrapper teamed with Dot Rice on piano in an attempt to recapture the earlier brilliance but was only successful, in impressing again, his fleet-fingered style. As a solo artist, his records never sold anywhere near as well as when he worked with Carr. Indeed, the number of existing 78's with Blackwell as a solo artist attest to that, as they are rare items. Disgusted with the record business, he went to work as a laborer for the Indianapolis Asphalt Plant and only returned to music in 1958 after much coaxing from Art Rosenbaum. The years of manual employment did nothing to diminish his skills and his newfound success finally bore some financial gain. Sadly, that success would be short-lived. He was shot and killed in 1962 following a dispute with a neighbor. This compilation features Scrapper Blackwell as a distinct vocalist and a guitarist capable of delicate runs and stomping shuffles. Sound quality over the 21 tracks is clear and crisp and the liner notes from Paul Swinton are very informative. Another top-shelf issue from the folks at Catfish Records.
Henry Townsend was born in Shelby, MS, in 1909 and later wound up in Cairo, IL. He planted himself in St. Louis somewhere about 1918 and remains a skillful guitarist to this day. "Henry's Worry Blues" (Catfish 172) takes 17 sides of Townsend's and another seven from friends to combine for another excellent look at pre-war blues. As a guitarist, Townsend shows more than competence with some fine, insistent rhythm work on the opening title track from 1929, and some equally impressive single-string work over the remainder of his titles. As a vocalist, Henry is quite convincing with a throaty style showing to great effect in "Long Ago Blues" and everything else here. A couple of cuts make for tougher listening with rather poor sound quality, but given that original masters don't exist, having "Doctor Oh Doctor" and "Jack Of Diamonds Georgia Rub" make up for the lack of pristine sonics. Roosevelt Sykes assists with some fine piano on a few sides, while four from a 1937 date find Henry joined by an unknown piano player, Robert Lee McCoy (Nighthawk) on guitar, plus John Lee (Sonny Boy #1) Williamson's talents as a harmonica player and the trio appears to be well-versed with Townsend's style. J.D. Short, another Mississippian at birth in 1902, moved to St. Louis and seems to have been a little less than a 'friend' of Townsend's and was responsible for stabbing Henry. Tragically and comically (an unlikely combination) it was Townsend who managed the trump card when he later wounded J.D. Short with a bullet fired from a .38 caliber revolver. The single gunshot could not have found a more unlikely place to wind up either; suffice it to say that Short may well have been the most talked about bluesman in St. Louis after the fracas! As a guitarist and singer, J.D. was skilled as evidenced by his five tracks from two sessions in 1930 and 1932. "Telephone Arguin' Blues" is especially fine as is "Lonesome Swamp Rattlesnake." The pseudonym of Joe Stone seems also to hide the identity of J.D. Short. A common practice used by countless bluesmen, it is entirely possible that Short was under contract with one label, and decided to record for a competitor's imprint. Both from a 1933 Chicago date, "It's Hard Times" with its blazing guitar backdrop and the strong closer, "Back Door Blues," show similarities in both vocal and instrumental approach. All in all, another worthwhile trip to the Catfish pond. For full track listings and an entire catalog of excellent releases, www.catfishrecords.co.uk should answer any questions.
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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