Lurrie C. Bell is one of the classic "tortured souls" of the blues. Imagine a homeless looking man wandering around the Chicago Blues Festival. He is playing the harmonica and singing along with any number of performers on stage; bumming cigarettes and quarters from other people in the audience and getting any number of odd looks from the crowd as he continues his wild-eyed offstage performance. In the "truth IS stranger than fiction" category, this man really is Lurrie Bell, the son of harp legend Carey Bell, and a veritable genius of Chicago blues guitar. Whatever demons exist to torture him endlessly, they periodically relent so that select blues fans can get a glimpse of his genius in a live performance or on a recording such as his latest on Delmark, "Blues Had A Baby."
Most of the songs on "Blues Had A Baby" were recorded in 1997. However, the recording contains four tracks that were recorded informally in 1995, featuring Lurrie Bell at his solo best, relatively unaware that the recordings were even being made. From the opening number, "Giving Me A Hard Time," where Bell is backed nicely by a group of Chicago musicians who seem to believe in Bell's genius, to the solo version of Muddy Water's, "Rollin' & Tumblin'" that closes out the CD, this is some of Lurrie Bell's best work. Listening to the disc makes it even harder to believe Bell's state of mental health and that the man does not even own a guitar (he has been inclined to sell them whenever someone has been generous enough to give him one as a gift)!
Only three songs on the recording are written, or co-written, by Bell; the instrumental, "Lurrie's Walk," ""Raised On The Blues," co-written with harp player Arthur Scott, and a solo version of "I'll Be Your 44" that is nothing short of fantastic. "Raised On The Blues" is an autobiographical song about Lurrie's life as a child prodigy of the blues, although it offers little as to why he succumbed to the demons that now possess him.
The covers on the recording are well done and come from a variety of bluesmen including Muddy Waters, Otis "Smokey" Smothers, Bo Diddley, Little Mack Simmons, Eddie Boyd and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, just to name a few. I actually found it hard to pick any one of the songs as my favorite, because I liked them all. However, with the exception of "If I Had A Hammer," which gets a bit repetitive at over six minutes in length, I probably enjoyed the solo tunes, "I'll Be your 44," "Mary Had A Little Lamb," and "Rollin' & Tumblin'," the best because they are pure Lurrie Bell and a prime example of his raw talent.
Each song gives the listener a good idea of the talent that Bell possesses as a guitarist. Some of the best guitar on the CD appears on "Lurrie' Walk" and on "Big Boy" Crudup's, "Mean Old Frisco." Given Bell's personal state of affairs, "Mean Black Spider" seems to be representative of his life as he seeks that "mean red spider to tear her cobweb down." I also enjoyed Bell's version of Bo Diddley's, "Who Do You Love?," one of my all time favorite blues/rock n' roll songs.
Lurrie Bell is a unique individual and a guitarist of exceptional skill. This recording captures and displays Bell's strengths, while clearly masking his personal and mental weaknesses. It is a thoroughly enjoyable recording and one that I would strongly recommend to blues fans, especially those who love great Chicago style blues guitar. Listen to the record, read the liner notes and if you ever get a chance to hear Lurrie Bell perform live, seize the moment and savor every bit of it.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.