What hasn't been said about Sam Phillips and Sun Records? Not much. Perhaps more recognized as the man who put Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis on record for the first time, his contributions to blues have been sometimes lost, or at least buried, among accolades for helping develop what we now know as rockabilly. Before that small list descended on the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, Phillips was embroiled in waxing some of the hottest blues South of the Mason-Dixon Line. Having been the man who first rolled tape for Howlin' Wolf would have been enough for the history books, but that he also cut records for James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, Earl Hooker, Little Junior Parker, Pinetop Perkins, Willie Nix, Willie Johnson, Sammy Lewis, Little Milton, and loads more, is astounding! When he first started out, his Sun label had yet to be unveiled, but by recording masters and sending them off to the RPM/Modern interests, and Leonard and Phil Chess, who owned the Chess/Checker concern, he saw an income and interest that kept the ball rolling.
This 25 track, 70 minute disc, is packed with gems that may elicit follicle deficiencies, will definitely make your skin crawl, and could easily cause your blood to boil. Kicking off with Joe Hill Louis on "We All Gotta Go Sometime," the table is set quickly. Louis' guitar is charged by the insistent beat of Willie Nix at the drum kit, while Nix fronts the rollicking "Baker Shop Boogie" with James Cotton aboard for harp detail. Harmonica's swan song should rightly be Walter Horton's "Easy," from 1953. Taken from Ivory Joe Hunter's melody of "I Almost Lost My Mind," Horton wails with a fluency of ideas and tones that seem endless. Rufus Thomas answered Big Mama Thornton with "Bear Cat," in response to "Hound Dog," which forced Peacock Records' impresario, Don Robey, to sue Phillips for copyright infringement, and while that effort was successful, we still have Joe Hill Louis slashing wildly across the guitar strings as Thomas hisses and snarls his way through a powerful piece of music. Little Junior Parker's "Feelin' Good" rumbles along a one-chord groove laid down by Floyd Murphy's tight guitar, and Rufus Thomas reappears with "Tiger Man," a brilliant number, with Houston Stokes beating a jungle rhythm out behind Thomas' yelps and screams. Pinetop Perkins drops in with "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" from August of 1953, and makes way for another Joe Hill Louis sparkler, "Hydramatic Woman," with Walter Horton providing the unerring harp. Earl Hooker pulled up to the Memphis Recording Service in July of 1953 and left the deftly fingered guitar piece, "The Hucklebuck," with its country-like beat full of double-stops and fleeting fret work, and made enough room for his companion, Pinetop, to make some noise. Little Junior Parker returns with a pair of surprises on "Mystery Train," and its flip-side, "Love My Baby," both skirting the line of rockabilly while retaining a solid blues feel. Doctor Ross, a one-man band, contributes "Come Back Baby," and "The Boogie Disease," with an echo that makes it seem as if Ross was sitting in a gymnasium for the session. Little Milton Campbell comes through leaving a double dose of his guitar work with strong vocals on "Somebody Told Me" and "Lookin' For My Baby," while James Cotton fronts "Straighten Up Baby" and "Cotton Crop Blues," sans harmonica, as Pat Hare's manic, crushing six-string work takes all the fills and breaks. When it comes to mind-blowing Memphis guitar, Pat Hare's "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby," may be the pinnacle with a crumbling tone from a highly overblown amplifier. Oddly enough, as Hare says in his vocals, "Judge, I just thought you'd like to know," he indeed committed a double-murder and spent his remaining years in prison in Minnesota. Billy 'The Kid' Emerson holds down a wonderful ballad with "When It Rains It Pours," and the oft-covered "Red Hot," making room for harmonica/vocalist Sammy Lewis, with a spirited "I Feel So Worried," stuffed with Willie Johnson's blazing guitar. Eddie Snow drops in "Ain't That Right," a stomping two-and-four shuffle with great lyrics, and steps aside for Vincent 'Guitar Red' Duling's "Go Ahead On," which predates Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" by a year, and seems surely the mold from which Chuck drew on. Roscoe Gordon does "The Chicken" with a flooring horn section and the set closes out with Frank Frost's dandy "Jelly Roll King" from 1962.
There's no filler in this fine compilation of Sam Phillips' prowess at recording blues talent. It was a combination of great artists with much to say, and Phillips' determination to record those artists, that made history. Excellent liner notes by Bill Dahl make for good reading while plowing through this stunning collection of harp, guitar, piano, and horn-soaked tunes. Sound quality is amazingly clean throughout, considering the elderly state of the masters, and this disc deserves attention from anyone with an interest in blues of any kind. www.VareseSarabande.com will provide more information, and email them to get on a their list for future releases at email@example.com
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.