It's unfortunate that items like this don't show up more often. Take four frontmen who can blow serious blues harp, stake them with potent bands, roll the tape, and let the chips fall where they may. Random Chance Records out of New York did exactly that with this gathering, and fortunately, the chips landed back on the card table, so perhaps we can hope for more efforts such as this in the future. Out of the four names here, only one has more than a modicum of recognition outside the barriers of the scholarly blues crowd; Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, whose credits include laying the backbeats behind Muddy Waters for years and stapling the drum chores for the offshoot Legendary Blues Band, but even he's not regarded as a leading figure on today's scene. Granted he can shuffle the daylights out of a groove, but as a harp player? If that raises the eyebrows, consider Martin Lang, Little Arthur Duncan, and finally, Alex Randle, or Easy Baby, as he's better known. Perhaps Duncan rings a bell with some due to his recent success after semi-retirement and recording a number of satisfying projects, but Easy Baby might garner only a nod or two after waxing a throwback LP in the 1970's when recordings came in large cardboard sleeves where a big, shiny piece of vinyl was wrapped tightly inside, and outside of Chicago, Martin Lang may not even be noticed on anyone's blues radar screen. Worry not, the goods are here on this 70-minute gem, and perhaps this will raise the interest level of lesser-knowns today, much like Sam Charters' age-old project, "Chicago-The Blues- Today!" did from the 1960's, or Bruce Iglauer's "Living Chicago Blues" series on Alligator from the 70's.
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith definitely has a long list of credits which date back even further than his employment with Muddy Waters considering he was blowing harp with Arthur "Big Boy" Spires in Chicago in the 1950's, but since then, he's simply been regarded as one of the finest drummers in the business. Can he play harp, though? A resounding answer in the affirmative should suffice and the proof lies here with his five cuts. Backed by the twin-guitar lineup of Eddie Taylor Jr. and Illinois Slim, plus the work of Steve Cushing behind the kit, Smith lays down some solid Chicago-styled blues and blows some workmanlike riffs. Taking pages from the book of Little Walter on "Blues With A Feeling" or Muddy Waters on "Read Way Back," Smith opts for a crude approach minus flashy gimmicks and grabs a full-throated tone from his amplifier, whether playing standard or chromatic. He's potent on "Hoodoo Man" as well, taking parts from both the Junior Wells and John Lee Williamson versions, and he sounds forceful on "Sugar Mama," although on "You're The One," a Jimmy Rogers' gem, his shortcomings as a vocalist ring loudly. The guitar work of Eddie Taylor Jr. and Illinois Slim deserves special mention for being perfect and unobtrusive and while Steve Cushing isn't going to make anyone forget that "Big Eyes" is a drumming monster, his efforts are solid and in the pocket.
Martin Lang opts for a couple-pair of instrumentals, which leads one to believe he's not a singer in the Chicago clubs he plays. Backed by another twin-guitar setup, this time provided by Rockin' Johnny Burgin and the late Dave Myers, Lang's four offerings are creatively interesting, much in a Little Walter bag, perhaps too much so. "Martin Leaps In" and "Sad Sad Day" sound as though they were nefariously lifted directly from "Juke" and other Jacobs' classics, while "Pulaski Stomp" is less about the Polish club and more about shuffling with a good band in tow. "Ten Hole Blues" is a slow grinder laced with reverb, as are Lang's prior three tracks and he acquits himself well. In an odd twist, drum chores are handled here by Kenny Smith, son of Willie, who leads off the disc and then it's Little Arthur's turn with three cuts... "Leavin' In The Mornin' " is close to a carbon copy of Little Walter's "I Got To Go," but Duncan's high-pitched and pleading voice charges the senses while his squawking harp is potent. Supported by Johnny Burgin's guitar, Karl Meyer on bass, and Ashward Gates on drums (Twist Turner takes the chores on "Pretty Thing"), Duncan takes things back in time and hands in a rousing version of "Young Fashioned Ways."
The throwdown here goes to Easy Baby, without question, and what a pleasure it is to hear him again, even if it's a mere four cuts. Alex Randle was a frequent player around the Chicago clubs from the 1950's onward as Easy Baby, but after recording for George Paulus on the Barrelhouse label in the late 1970's, he drifted back into relative obscurity and began playing and singing in church. Thankfully, he re-entered a studio in February of last year and at least part of that session wound up here. "Room 309" begins with the sound of a needle dropping onto a record and the relaxed shuffle offered by Eddie Taylor Jr. (his father, Eddie Taylor assisted on Randle's Barrelhouse LP), Sho Komiya's stalwart bass work, Allen Batts on piano, and Ashward Gates on drums, opens the door for Randle's whiskey-soaked vocals and sharp harp. Next, the band pours through a liquid rendition of Little Walter's "Crazy Mixed Up World" with more toughness from Easy Baby, but it's on "Willie Mae" where things really hit stride. Working off a Howlin' Wolf groove ('You Gonna Wreck My Life'), Randle wrestles incredibly soulful vocals from within and charges the surroundings with some knife-edged harmonica while Eddie Jr. lays smoldering lines behind a ton of echo, and the disc closes out with "This Little Light Of Mine," a warming, gospel-flavored workout with some fine interplay between Batts and Easy Baby.
It's a true pleasure to review discs of this sort. It's blues the way blues was meant to be played, and heard, something far too many record producers seem to forget these days. While "Blues Harmonica Orgy" might have its few warts, they add to the natural quality of what's here instead of subtracting from the overall outcome. Willie Smith is perhaps a little weak in the vocal chair, but his harp deserves further exploration and we could handle hearing another set from a virtual unknown like Martin Lang, while Little Arthur Duncan seems primed for more, and hopefully, this will help propel him further forward. To close, if someone doesn't get to work with Easy Baby again before the end of the year, it'll be nothing short of a major offense since this man deserves much more notoriety than he's seen, and we'd all be the better for it! By all means, pick this one up. Check out www.randomchancerecords.com for more information.
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This review is copyright © 2002 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.
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