Joe Lee, or Big Joe Williams isn't exactly a household name even in homes where blues discs take up a considerable amount of space. Born in Crawford, MS, in 1903, he was a guitarist of astonishing ability who was also blessed with a raffish voice drenched in character. Were those attributes all he offered, his name would still rest securely in the rich history of blues, but fortunately, Williams was rather well represented on record and since the advent of the compact disc, a good portion of his material has been made available. Stemming from 1957, 1960, and finally, 1963, Big Joe's powerful vocals rattle the senses and the 9-string guitar (of his own creation) jangles the nerves for the duration of this hour-long compilation from Fuel 2000 Records.
Of the three separate sessions, the first nine tracks are a wonderful and little-known addition to Williams' catalog coming from Eli Toscano's Cobra label, an entrepreneur who had the sense to cut Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and others. What is most surprising is that Toscano would even take an interest in Williams, not to say he wasn't worthy or engaging, but artists from Toscano's roster were the young Turks of Chicago's Westside, known for crumbling electric blues with high-energy guitar well to the fore. Williams is a complete anomaly when placed in that context, yet he was a rambler and wanderer much like Lightnin' Hopkins or John Lee Hooker, both who showed up in some rather odd settings on curious imprints. Paired with a young Erwin Helfer, then a wide-eyed 21 year-old who played simple yet convincing blues piano, Williams and his young accompanist sound closer to the 1930's than 1957 (as Bill Dahl points out in his liner notes, these particular tracks were not assigned master numbers and can't be pinpointed in that label's history). Big Joe's rough and tumble style comes to the surface easily in "Bessemer Baby" where his voice surrounds the 'live' room as Helfer turns in some fine work. As strange as it might seem when thinking of Williams' age at the time (already in his 50's), his decision to carry the still-growing Helfer to a recording date works remarkably well, except for one small miscue on "Baby Please Don't Go," where Williams takes control and goes it alone following the error. Curiously, what is titled as a second take of this song is actually a completely different track, "Highway 49," as the two takes are tied as one track. Stomping versions of "Shake Your Boogie" and "Jump Baby Jump" show Helfer in solid support and Williams pounding the time out with heavy feet while he manages some taut guitar. Other tracks from this mysterious date include "Cottage Grove," "Meet Me In The Bottom," "Mean Mistreater," and "Prison Bound."
What is sometimes regarded as the initial super-session in blues was the coming together of Big Joe Williams, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Sonny Terry with Brownie McGhee from 1960. "Chain Gang Blues" finds all four offering stellar work, and Williams' powerful voice is the perfect complement to that of Hopkins, who is so convincing, he sounds as if he might actually be in prison while Terry and McGhee offer more strong vocals. For "Razor Sharp Blues," we get a taste of Big Joe's riveting bottleneck style and a few brief comments from his contemporaries as Williams slides and sears his guitar strings. The brilliantly recorded third session here hands in nine tracks which emanate from Copenhagen in October of 1963 when Joe was touring as part of The American Folk Blues Festival. He sounds absolutely incredible, as on "So Soon I'll Be On My Way Back Home" with slashing guitar and spoken asides, ingredients found in many of his recordings as evidenced again in "Don't You Leave Me Here," a stellar showing. Bukka White's "Shake 'Em On Down" gets a solid reading and Williams turns in a smoldering performance on "Ramblin' And Wanderin' Blues" with its insistent guitar rhythm and a captivating voice, but his spellbinding approach may show to its best in "Shaggy Hound Blues" with stunning guitar and chaotic vocals. Big Joe also tears through "I Feel So Worried," "Fickle Pickle," "Don't The Apples Look Mellow," and a shimmering "El Paso Blues."
Unfortunately, Big Joe Williams never catapulted into the echelon of those like Son House, Bukka White, or others, who enjoyed a resurgence in their careers during the 1960's folk revival. Continuing to wander and record for various labels, Williams' life was his music and rambling nature, which finally came to a close on December 19, 1982 in Macon, MS. His placement in blues' rich historical legacy can be understood here where we are allowed to witness 20 tracks of his arresting style; snippets of slide guitar, his ragged and right approach on an instrument he designed, and a booming voice that left no doubt of when he was at his finest.
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