Recorded in the heat of the summer in 1976, this gathering of talent is a bittersweet reminder of what once was a thriving commodity in Chicago and although Sunnyland Slim, Blind John Davis, Jimmy Walker, and Willie Mabon have all since passed on, Erwin Helfer still dishes out the work of these masters and others. On the down side, the gaping voids left in piano blues may never quite be filled when the number of true blues piano purveyors is sadly quite small. Originally issued on vinyl a quarter-century ago, these five men came together to share ideas, laughter, and a few drinks, and what they left is rousing, heartfelt talent overflowing with simple honesty.
Blind John Davis' history stretched back to the 1930's when he was a common counterpart to bluesmen like Tampa Red, John Lee Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy and others, and his stirring Davis Boogie proves quickly that he was a true master of Chicago Boogie Piano. A thundering left hand rolls out the bottom end while his right, one from God, pounds crisp chords and rattling flurries of notes, and for Ivory Joe Hunter's I Almost Lost My Mind, he slows the pace for a few sweet moments, and his soulful voice is the cornerstone of A Little Every Day, a slightly reworked version of Everyday I Have The Blues. Sunnyland Slim was an all too under-appreciated artist who was partly responsible for the success of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and many more, but his own journeyman efforts often went unheralded. He dishes out a pounding She's Got A Thing Goin' On and ends with his Woody Woodpecker guffaw only to launch into a loping Canadian Walk, complete with walking basses and deft right hand trills, and for Gotta See My Lawyer, he pushes a slow and brooding blues forward as his vocals get to the heart of his problems. Willie Mabon was perhaps the more polished of the group here, but he lays out solid blues for Cripple Clarence Lofton's I Don't Know in addition to Willie Dixon's The Seventh Son, plus his own World Of Trouble. Jimmy Walker's name might be the least-recognized of the bunch here but his pumping metric sense and rather odd penchant for sometimes inverting the accents come across as wonderful inclusions in his jumping Four O'Clock Blues and a thoroughly backroom blues during I Just Want To Hold On. His world-weary voice and background humming add considerably to pair. Erwin Helfer was a young man of forty when these tracks were cut but his efforts fit smartly beside what the elders offered as his crushing take on Cripple Clarence Lofton's The Fives aptly displays, while his own Improvizations takes it slow, sophisticated, and lowdown where a bevy of influences can be heard. His piano work holds the rhythm while Sunnyland Slim delivers fine organ in Big Joe, a tribute to a man Helfer had the pleasure of working and recording with in the late 1950's. There are five bonus tracks taken directly from a cassette recording of the original sessions that hand in another fifteen minutes of joy with Slim's off-the-cuff Promote Sunnyland A Drink, Blind John's rippling Kansas City, and Mabon's own Slow Blues. Davis' piano and Slim's organ pair up for Johnny Sunny Blues and the program closes out with Walker's alley throwdown of Mr. Freddie Blues.
While a great many years have passed, along with all-but-one of the artists at work here, their timeless abilities stand mightily regardless of how much water has passed under the bridge of life. Simply put, gatherings like this were a rarity and we should all be thankful that this session provides a truly wonderful look at something most of us were never able to see first hand. Highly recommended!
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