Building an essential blues collection can sometimes seem a daunting task for those new to the music, while others who are veterans may have passed opportunities to add quality sets to their shelves. Much like reviewing, a writer's concept of "Essential" recordings is subjective to personal taste, however, the importance of the Chess label is unquestionable. Beginning with Aristocrat, Leonard and Phil Chess mined an enormous amount of influential recordings from the genre's supreme talents. It is with that in mind that we begin what will be a continuing look at necessary items that belong in any blues collection. The first installment in this ongoing column will include the "Chess Blues" set and the impressive Howlin' Wolf box set.
"Chess Blues" is a 4-disc compilation spanning more than two decades of recordings (1947-1967) that launched the Aristocrat imprint as a major concern in the music industry and continued through the label's name change to Chess in 1950. This incredible set contains a total of 101 tracks clocking in at more than four hours of playing time, a 60-plus page booklet filled with informative liner notes, session details, and a healthy dose of rare pictures from the Chess files. The following artists, either working their own sessions, or those who played supporting roles, consists of an amazing roster musicians who were ruling Chicago clubs in the prime years; Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Sunnyland Slim, Robert Nighthawk, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, John Brim, Henry Gray, J.B. Lenoir, and countless others make dynamic impressions. The "Chess Blues" set is definitely an essential item for any blues collection that proves beyond question the importance of the label, the men who ran the operation, and the artists who contributed greatly to its success.
Howlin' Wolf remains as the pinnacle of wild and vicious attitude in blues lore. Built on a massive frame, Chester Arthur Burnett stood over six feet tall and weighed in at better than 260 pounds on a good day, he possessed a voice as subtle as an earthquake, and was famous for crawling on his hands and knees, croaking and baying like a wounded animal. That alone would be enough to place him firmly in the who's who of blues, but by leading small combos that crackled with the energy of a lightning bolt, Howlin' Wolf amassed a catalog of songs that remain untouched for their raw, emotional power. Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Jody Williams, Otis Spann, Henry Gray, Eddie Shaw, S.P. Leary, Fred Below, and many more were the backbone of Wolf's assault on the blues market, and with Willie Dixon and the Chess brothers as the brain-trust, his recordings found their target. The Howlin' Wolf box set delivers more than three hours of razor-sharp blues over three CD's, sporting a a thirty page booklet with liner notes from Chris Morris and Dick Shurman, complete session details, and it overflows with incredible pictures. Howlin' Wolf's importance cannot be overstated; he was, quite simply, one of the most explosive performers in the rich history of blues.
Following the upcoming first installment, "Building an Essential Blues Collection - Part 1," the next few additions will continue by focusing on a few other Chess figures; Little Walter Jacobs, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Williamson. These four giants, along with Howlin' Wolf, stood at the top of the heap by defining Chicago Blues, a style that contributed greatly to the birth of rock and roll, and countless other forms of American music. These collections, while not new, are widely available from various online sources. Also, support your local independent record stores by ordering the titles through them, as many will match the low retail prices on the internet. I welcome input and suggestions from readers in this attempt to help others build a solid foundation of essential blues items. Stay tuned!
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