(1992 - MCA/Chess CHD4-9430; 4-CD Set)
In the 1950's and '60's, one of the most significant and successful labels offering blues as a strong part of its catalog was run by Leonard and Phil Chess. As Polish immigrants who landed on these shores in 1922, the brothers toiled in their father's junk business, but later went on to define "The American Dream." Leonard bought and operated liquor stores and a few small nightclubs (described as little more than dives) while Phil served his country in the war. Leonard was not eligible due to a bout with polio as a child that left him with a limp. These joints Leonard ran featured blues as entertainment and served as a springboard for a larger club, the Macomba, and by recording the talent playing their venue, the brothers went on to run and improve the powerful Chess Records label in Chicago, where local competition came only from the neighboring Vee Jay imprint.
After its beginnings with a stable of jazz lounge musicians and pop crooners that included Tom Archia, Andrew Tibbs, and others, success struck loudly when Aristocrat #1305 was released, a Muddy Waters' recording titled "I Can't Be Satisfied," in April of 1948. The track was a buzzing Delta-style blues, simply updated with overdriven guitar notes piercing from an amplifier. Hauling it to outlets which included barber shops and beauty parlors, taverns, Pullman porters, and a few record distributors, Muddy's 78 would sell out quickly. After buying into, and later buying out the entire Aristocrat operation, the brothers developed a system where Phil would run the label while Leonard hustled new demo copies from the trunk of his car to radio stations and retailers within a one-thousand mile radius. Paying for the privilege of having their records played seemed completely natural to Leonard and Phil, natural enough that these monetary transactions would be claimed in their tax returns, long before anyone heard of the payola scandal that would rock the music industry to its foundation years later. The Aristocrat imprint was changed to Chess in 1950, celebrating the family's name, and the successful business would bear offshoots over time that included the Checker and Argo labels.
By appealing to a growing demographic of African-Americans from Southern states who found better paying jobs in booming industrial cities, Chess lasted a number of decades and boasted a roster of greats that reads like a who's who in music. Willie Dixon may have been one of the more prolific songwriters and producers in blues, but he played important roles with the logo that launched Chuck Berry, sometimes credited as the man who invented rock 'n' roll, and Etta James, the quintessential R&B queen. Also on board was Dale Hawkins, an artist near the forefront of rockabilly, responsible for the original version "Suzy Q," and the Moonglows, a vocal harmony group whose contract was purchased by Chess for $500.00, a rather small investment considering the return. These artists were part of an ever-widening scope, but one look at the impressive lineup of blues talent was enough to let anyone know who ruled the roost; Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Eddie Boyd, John Brim, Buddy Guy, and others were all key players. For an in-depth history of the label, suggested reading includes the book, "Spinning Blues Into Gold," by Nadine Cohodas, published in 2000 by St. Martin's Griffin. "Chess Blues," a 4-disc boxed set, gathers 101 tracks with a handful of alternate takes, plus a good selection of songs previously unissued in the US, and makes for over four hours of listening time.
Disc one (73:32) covers the years 1947 to 1952 leading off with Clarence Samuels and his guitar fronting a small jump combo on "Lollypop Mama" in a style similar to Wynonie Harris, and steps aside for the controversial "Bilbo Is Dead," from Andrew Tibbs, a cocktail number remembering a senator from Mississippi. Albert Luandrew, or Sunnyland Slim, was a crafty entrepreneur and session pianist on early Aristocrat/Chess recording dates. His "Johnson Machine Gun" and "Fly Right, Little Girl" were issued as Aristocrat #1301, both potent and threatening pieces with his ode to the respected sidearm offering a memorable closing line:
"Yes, the undertaker's been here, darlin' I give him your height and size,
now if you don't be makin' whoopee for the Devil tomorrow this time,
baby, God knows you'll be surprised."
Muddy Waters is allotted five cuts on the first CD including "I Can't Be Satisfied," the record that rocketed to fame in Chicago's neighborhoods following its 1948 release. Muddy would later recall that, upon hearing his voice bellowing from the open windows of tenement houses where the record was being played, he often wondered if he'd died. Other tracks by Waters include an alternate take of "All Night Long," the highly influential "Rollin' Stone," "Little Anna Mae," and "Feel Like Goin' Home." St. Louis Jimmy Oden, famous enough for writing the classic "Goin' Down Slow," offers "Florida Hurricane," while Robert Nighthawk contributes a pair.
"My Sweet Lovin' Woman," with its crisp single-note leads and the lyrical, smooth slide playing on "Sweet Black Angel," offer great comparison with Muddy's style, a searing and ragged approach that retained its Delta flavor. Also present is Jimmy Rogers on a restrained "Ludella," and Baby Face Leroy Foster punches in with "My Head Can't Rest Anymore." Piano is well to the fore as Little Johnny Jones hits with an early and tempered version of what would become an Eddie Taylor standard, "Bigtown Playboy," and "Tonky Boogie" by Chicago's Forrest Sykes is a standout. Johnny Shines turns in a thumping "Joliet Blues," while Memphis Slim, Forest City Joe Pugh, Dr. Isaiah Ross and others roll through with valuable efforts.
Disc two (73:08) tackles 1952-1954 and begins with an alternate take of John Lee Hooker's "Walkin' The Boogie" plus Little Walter Jacobs' timeless harp shuffle, "Juke." Memphis Minnie logs two tracks, the brilliant, previously unreleased "Conjur Man" with Little Walter's stirring harmonica work, plus an alternate take of "Broken Heart," both from 1952, with the latter featuring some comical studio banter. Willie Nix, an incredibly satisfying artist who recorded for Sam Phillips puts forth "Truckin' Little Woman," a title waxed in Memphis in 1952 and issued as Checker #756, and while the trio consisted only of Nix on drums and vocal, Willie Johnson's jagged guitar, and Walter Horton's harp, the groove is relentless. Louisiana Red, under the name of Rocky Fuller, delivers "Funeral Hearse At My Door" with more of Little Walter's distinct harp (session details mark the player as an unknown but aural evidence points to Jacobs), and Eddie Boyd throws out "Hard Times Gettin' Started" with some smoking Robert Jr. Lockwood guitar figures. Little Walter gets more action with the 1953 instrumental "Don't Need No Horse" and the perennial "Blues With A Feeling," and Gus Jenkins hands in "Eight Ball" with Horton again supplying incisive harmonica. Jacobs also gets off the simmering "Fast Boogie," a track so creative and dynamic, it easily rivals any of his other work. John Brim drops in with "Ice Cream Man" and Henry Gray hands over a tough "I Declare That Ain't Right," both from 1953 and with strong contributions from Jacobs. Gray assists Morris Pejoe for an "Untitled Instrumental," loaded with distorted guitar, Muddy adds a few more, and the additional tracks by Wolf, J.B. Lenoir, and Elmore James are of just as much interest.
Disc three (73:09) spans 1954 through 1960, with Little Walter's "Mellow Down Easy" and Muddy's "My Eyes (Keep Me In Trouble)" leading off, and Willie Dixon, responsible for running countless sessions for Leonard and Phil Chess, serves up "Walking The Blues." Sonny Boy's rippling "Don't Start Me To Talkin' " smolders with its twin guitars and Otis Spann's driving piano, then Jody Williams and Hubert Sumlin hand in the string work for a harrowing "Smokestack Lightnin' " by Wolf, and Spann is present in a rare leader's role with the New Orleans-flavored "I'm Leaving You," with solid work from Walter Horton. Wolf returns with "Break Of Day," this time garnering assistance from Sumlin and Otis "Smokey" Smothers, and Jimmy Rogers forwards a 1956 diamond, "Walking By Myself," again with Big Walter blowing a powerful and flowing solo. An alternate take of Sonny Boy's "Fattening Frogs For Snakes" appears along with a rare band track for "The Goat," the liner notes pointing out that his vocals just weren't making the grade, yet the track stands fine minus Williamson's voice with Otis Spann handling the piano chair. Muddy offers the rollicking "Got My Mojo Working" and Lafayette Leake stands in with a rolling piano instrumental, aptly titled "Slow Leake." Muddy returns, in his usual element, with a raw alternate reading of "Double Trouble" and the disc ends with a thundering slow blues by Otis Rush. "So Many Roads, So Many Trains" from 1960 turns in a slashing and violent guitar break that marks it as one of the best ever from a Chess session. Other notables are Paul Gayten and Myrtle Jones, Jimmy Witherspoon, Eddie Boyd's "Come On Home," and Floyd Dixon's "Please Don't Go."
Disc four (71:31) gathers ups sides from 1960 to 1967, getting off to a muscular beginning with Buddy Guy's "First Time I Met The Blues," another solid contender for best guitar category, although it falls just shy of wreaking complete havoc, then Detroit Junior clocks in with "Too Poor." From 1960 sessions in Los Angeles, Lowell Fulson climbs in with "Blue Shadows," Lloyd Glenn providing the piano here and on his own feature, "The Shakedown," and Fulson rounds out Glenn's small combo by returning a favor. Also present is a drilling alternate take of Elmore James' classic, "The Sun Is Shining," and Albert King makes himself known with "Calling On My Darling." Little Milton hands in a searing, soul-drenched shuffle titled "I'm Satisfied," then Etta James grinds with "Something's Got A Hold On Me." Koko Taylor manages two cuts; 1964's "What Kind Of Man Is That?" featuring Robert Nighthawk playing too rare a session as an accompanist and "Wang Dang Doodle," from the following year. Little Joe Blue gets into the affair with his B.B. King-inflected "Dirty Work Goin' On" as does Eddie Burns with the slow "Jinglin' Baby," then Muddy hands in another firm effort, the previously unissued "That's Why I Don't Mind," from 1966. Hound Dog Taylor, from his one-and-only Chess session is riveting on his slow blues, "Sitting Here Alone," and John Lee Hooker shows up again, as do the Wolf, Walter Horton, and Sonny Boy. The Big Three Trio display "Wrinkles" with more Lafayette Leake piano and Etta James handles "I'd Rather Go Blind" to close the final page in this long and rewarding set.
At more than four-and-a-half hours of playing time, there's no shortage of music here, and the 60-plus page booklet with session details and the near-endless supply of stunning pictures from the Chess files add even further interest, but the photo of Willie Nix, Sonny Boy, and Robert Jr. Lockwood on page 61 is worth the price of admission alone. Packaging is nothing short of exceptional and the sound quality is what is expected today, crisp and clear, and if the "Chess Blues" box is not a part of your collection as of now, it should be. With rock 'n' roll gaining momentum as the 1950's moved nearer to the 1960's, blues began taking a back seat as record companies scurried trying to score major artists with top sales potential. Chess was much the same, and unfortunately, Little Walter, Muddy, Sonny Boy, and many more would find themselves with less and less studio time. But the years prior had been great ones for Chess Records and the performers who were nurtured there. "Chess Blues" is a wonderful 4-CD document proving how diverse the label was for over twenty years, and with everything here, it offers the best introduction to the style of Chicago Blues and how it's best played.
The Chess Box
(1991 - MCA/Chess CHD3-9332; 3-CD Set)
This 3-disc set, originally issued in 1991, covers over 70 tracks from 1951 to a 1973 session. Disc one (71:00) logs 26 tracks, a few spoken sections by Wolf himself from an interview, and some of the most electrifying performances ever waxed by Chester Arthur Burnett, more affectionately known as the Howlin' Wolf, one of the most powerful and vicious performers in the history of blues. Born June 10, 1910, in West Point, MS, near Aberdeen, he began his playing career at a later date than most. However, with an inimitable style, by the late 1940's he was hawking farm implements and broadcasting over station KWEM in Memphis, much like those which Sonny Boy Williamson had been doing for KFFA in Helena, AR. By 1951, he was cutting sessions for Sam Phillips at the Memphis Recording Service with a voice as pitted as a gravel road, an eerie falsetto howl, and a squawking harp attack. Backed by a houserocking band as dangerous as it was young, it featured the crushing guitar work of Willie Johnson, the clobbering drums of Willie Steele, heavily rhythmic piano from Albert Williams, L.C. Hubert, and a few others, plus Wolf's vocals could raise any long-dead soul within earshot, and that distance was indeed more than a stone's throw. Phillips began sending masters from Wolf's sessions to the Bihari brothers in California for their RPM logo, and simultaneously to the Chess boys, who were operating their label in Chicago.
"Moanin' At Midnight" roars first, a tune that appeared on Chess #1479, a move the Biharis fought by traveling to the Memphis area with recording equipment in tow. They insisted Wolf re-cut a thinly disguised version that would soon hit the market on RPM #333, cleverly titled "Morning At Midnight." With both imprints issuing records that were competing with one another, a scuffle ensued with the powerful Chess conglomerate winning out by forking over Rosco Gordon in a trade for Howlin' Wolf. Gordon's infectious boogies were solid records, but Wolf's efforts were simply better received, due in part to his unique approach, and in turn came the larger sales numbers. Willie Johnson steps up front and center making an unforgettable and dynamic first impression on "Midnight," and one that lasts throughout his sides here. This is stripped and raw blues played by a bare-knuckled trio with only distorted guitar and thumping drums behind Wolf's grumbling voice and powerful harp. "How Many More Years" moves aside for "Howlin' Wolf Boogie" and "Mr. Highway Man," both packed with more disruptive guitar, while "The Wolf Is At Your Door," is a slow and gripping blues. James Cotton manages a guest spot blowing harp on "Saddle My Pony," with its back-and-forth beat and on "(Well) That's All Right," a rocking shuffle from 1952, Johnson's guitar works seamlessly with Wolf's harp, weaving miraculous patterns. "Streamline Woman" and "Crazy About You Baby" offer additional horrifying guitar exercises from Johnson, this time with even more distortion than usual, and by 1954, Howlin' Wolf was relocating to Chicago.
His initial session in the Windy City from March of '54 produced the brilliant "No Place To Go," available elsewhere, but an alternate take appears here as "You Gonna Wreck My Life." On the issued version, Willie Dixon is audible in the background coaching Wolf's voice, while this take finds the leader fending for himself, the outcome much looser, and it features a years-ahead-of-its-time solo by guitarist, Lee Cooper. "Neighbors" drives up the pace with another fine outing by Cooper, and thrilling piano contributed by Otis Spann, who shines on seven additional titles. "I'm The Wolf" slows things down again only to pick back up for a gripping shuffle, "The Rocker." These sessions produced records with more of an urbanized quality that reflected the loud surroundings of Chicago; the attack was still reckless with Spann's piano, Cooper's flailing guitar, Willie Dixon holding the bottom on bass, and Earl Phillips providing the driving backbeats, yet there was a noticeable change. This outfit played as if their very lives depended on it and it rivaled the best of Chicago's blues bands, including later aggregations under Wolf's tutelage. Hubert Sumlin made his first contribution on "Baby How Long," from May of 1954, and stuck with Wolf until his death, aside from one brief excursion to join the ranks of Muddy Waters. Jody Williams, another remarkable guitarist who managed breathtaking work on his own, was along in support of Sumlin here and elsewhere. "I'll Be Around," backed with "Forty Four," appeared as Chess #1584, a searing two-sider from 1954, and Wolf had Henry Gray at his side holding down piano duties by March of '55, Spann exiting due to a full-time spot in Muddy's outfit, but the snorting "Who Will Be Next" closes out the disc and shows Gray as a solid replacement.
Disc two (74:01) starts hot with Wolf's voice excruciating on "Don't Mess With My Baby," plus his usual high standards of harp work, and gripping fills tossed in left and right by Jody Williams, and in a January 1956 date, Willie Johnson returned. For Chess #1618, "Smokestack Lightnin' " was paired with "You Can't Be Beat," the latter a jarring shuffle with an endless barrage of guitar from Williams that fit perfectly with Earl Phillips' solid two-and-four beat while Hosea Lee Kennard's piano work shines. "I Asked For Water," based on a Tommy Johnson song Wolf learned while at Dockery's, in Mississippi, is revived in a mid-summer session from 1956, and the summer of 1957 produced the modern "Who's Been Talking," this time finding Otis 'Big Smokey' Smothers in tandem with Willie Johnson's guitar. "Moanin' For My Baby" from an April 1958 recording date is riveting with some extra reverb adding further despair to Wolf's already pleading vocal and the sizzling guitar work in "Change My Way" and "I Better Go Now" is offered by Sumlin, joined by the little-known L.D. McGhee. By this time, S.P. Leary was controlling operations from behind the drums and July of 1959 found Abe 'Little Smokey' Smothers handling guitar with Sumlin providing a fine alternate take of "Mr. Airplane Man." Koko Taylor's claim that "Wang Dang Doodle" was written for her by Willie Dixon will find doubters since Wolf's 1960 version heard here predates her recording of the same title by a few years. Others gems like "Back Door Man," from 1960, and "Down In The Bottom," from mid-1961, stand tall alongside "You'll Be Mine" or "Goin' Down Slow," while "I Ain't Superstitious" smolders, emanating from a late-1961 date and "Tail Dragger," from the closing months of 1962, bristles with force.
The final CD in the set (69:06) leads off with "Hidden Charms" from 1963 and follows with a few of Wolf's more commercially-oriented tracks; "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy," and "Built For Comfort," dating from an August 1963 date. These are certainly worthwhile, yet they pale in comparison to the rumbling shuffle of "Love Me Darlin' " where Hubert Sumlin gives his guitar a solid thrashing, and regardless of whether he was playing a Fender, Gibson, or the latest bargain-basement Japanese knock-off, his sound was immediately recognizable. "Killing Floor," a still timeless diamond rattles along and "I Walked From Dallas" follows, with its tortured vocal and more delirious guitar from Sumlin. "Louise," a slow-walking groove, serves another dose of spellbinding guitar, and with Buddy Guy in providing support, both work sheer magic. "Don't Laugh At Me" and "Ooh Baby (Hold Me)" stem from April of 1965, Eddie Shaw now blending in with his tenor sax, these tracks working on similar territory mined in "Killing Floor." Although now in his 50's, Wolf showed little sign of slowing down for an April 1966 date which offered the daunting "Commit A Crime," Wolf playing up the violence perhaps just a little too heavy for the Chess brothers to release, then a grinding version of "Dust My Broom" was waxed in 1967, although it too sat in limbo. The previously unreleased "I'm The Wolf" and "Ain't Goin' Down That Road," the latter a throwback to his days with Charley Patton, are both acoustic tracks, finding Wolf providing his own guitar accompaniment. "Mary Sue" and "Hard Luck" from a mid-1969 date were issued as Chess #2081, another strong two-sider where Sumlin offers up more of his careening guitar work, then in the false start to "The Red Rooster," from 1970's "The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions," Eric Clapton can be heard encouraging Wolf to play guitar making it easier for the band to follow the chord changes. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, the rhythm section anchors for the Rolling Stones join in along with Steve Winwood's organ, Lafayette Leake's piano, and a few others. The set closes with "Moving," a title from 1973 with Wolf boasting about the success he's managed; he's drinking wine every night, fishing every day, stopping off for a church service on Sunday, and playing in the sun. Considering that he bought his own boat in 1968, it's easy to assume a certain amount of truthfulness in his vocals, yet Wolf was playing as late as November of 1975, just two short months before his death from cancer in January of 1976.
Chester Arthur Burnett still lives in the hearts, minds, and souls of those who were truly touched by his music, a style so raw and vital, that regardless of how much time passes, it remains fresh. This 3-disc set is a stunning look at how he progressed with the times while staying firmly tied to the Delta traditions he grew up with when he learned guitar at the knee of Charley Patton. While his efforts changed periodically, reflecting the influence of Willie Dixon, the Chess stable's right-hand-man, and indeed the times, Howlin' Wolf always managed to grab the absolute best out of himself and the many who joined him in the studios. The remastering is superb over the more than three-and-a-half hours of playing time in this package, and the 30-page booklet, loaded with great pictures and solid liner notes from Chris Morris and Dick Shurman, capture both the man and his music perfectly. The short spoken passages where Wolf discusses his background lay plenty of evidence that his singing voice was not all that different from the way he talked. The Howlin' Wolf was the only figurehead strong enough to maintain a constant challenge to Muddy Waters for the crown as King of Chicago Blues... the proof rests here.
Nadine Cohodas - Spinning Blues Into Gold - St. Martin's Griffin
Leadbitter/Slaven - Blues Records 1943 - 1970 (Volume One) - Record Information Services
Mike Rowe - Chicago Blues - Da Capo Press
Special thanks to Robert Campbell at: http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/rsrf.html
for providing label images of the following 78's:
Aristocrat 1001 - Clarence Samuels (Dan Kochakian Collection)
Aristocrat 1401 - Forrest Sykes (Robert Campbell Collection)
Chess 1435 - Jimmy Rogers (Big Joe Louis collection)
Chess 1484 - Robert Nighthawk (Big Joe Louis collection)
Next Installment - Building an Essential Blues Collection - Part Two: Little Walter Jacobs
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