Unlike many national blues labels, Cannonball Records has focused on areas other than Chicago (still undoubtedly the home of the blues). Detroit and Texas have provided Cannonball with several artists. James Harman is of course from Los Angeles. Even Nashville has been selected as one of the "Blues Across America" cities. Besides the Chicago "Blues Across America" release, Cannonball has no Chicago artists -- other than arguably Bobby Rush and Bernard Allison who have each put out one release on Cannonball and don't hang in Chicago all that much, anyway. Thus, it is perhaps a bit surprising that Cannonball would be the label that put out the debut release of Little Al Thomas - a Chicago blues veteran not (previously) well known anywhere except Chicago's south side blues haunts.
A listen to the "South Side Story" explains why Cannonball recorded a Chicago "unknown." Little Al was born in Chicago in 1930, growing up in the Maxwell street area and experience its blues potpourri. A steel worker by day a blues vocalist by night, he has developed into a solid vocalist. Nothing fancy, but pleasing, competent work. He is backed by the Crazy House Band -- a drummer--fronted south side journeyman band Al has performed with regularly since the mid 1980's. This release also features the "Blues Swinger Horns" who are known for their work with Floyd McDaniels.
The material is done in what can overall be called an up tempo "Chicago Swing" style. Sort of a cross between fundamental hard-core Chicago blues and something resembling a west coast swing sound. Perhaps it is the horn line that gives this release its "swing" flavor. Many of the cuts are reminiscent of Floyd McDaniels swing-style blues, although not quite as jazz-based as most of McDaniels' work.
The Crazy House band features tasteful guitar work by John Edelman (who produced the release and penned two of the songs) and crisp piano work by Sidney Wingfield on top of a solid rhythm section. The addition of the fore-mentioned horns leads to an almost "big band" sound on many cuts.
The production of the release is very good. All of the cuts move along nicely. Solos are blended well within the songs, none approaching excess. Even though there are generally eight musicians playing on each cut, the material is arranged and recorded in a fashion where all of the tracks come through clearly. There is little "clutter" and no instrument being "stepped on." Al's vocals are predominating throughout, but don't over power the instruments.
There are eleven cuts on this CD - just more than 55 minutes of music. The CD opens with the somewhat funky soulful "Memphis Girl" - Written by the guitarist/producer. There is an excellent instrumental featuring the guitar within this cut. This is followed by "Nobody Sleepin' In My Bed" -- a slow ballad more than nine minutes long which features a strong horn line throughout. "Bad Luck Baby" is an up tempo shuffle. A solid version of "Somebody Changed the Lock on My Door" is followed by "Stepping Out" a quick, catchy instrumental that sounds a lot like a typical "break time" prelude. "Stranded in St. Louis" is one of the better examples of Little Al's vocal work on this CD, I think. He shows excellent range and timing in this cut. There is some infectious sax work on this cut, too. It is probably the most "Chicago sounding" tune on the album. The seventh cut "Feel So Good" is a spirited tribute about "feeling good," of course, through a variety of different means. "You're Breakin' My Heart" is another slow tune which very poignantly pulls at the (broken) heart strings. Little Al does some excellent, wrenching vocal work in this tune, as well. Little Al does respectable covers of blues standards "I Gotta Find My Baby" and "Rollin' & Tumblin," with a little more emphasis on the vocals on the later than one usually finds. The release concludes with "Just Like A Fish," the premise being "I Keep Falling For You Lines" -- a fast paced tune about being lied to.
This release is widely distributed and should be available at most full-service record stores, but can be ordered from Cannonball records through their WEB site: or by calling (612) 361-6302 if need be.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Mark Halverson, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.