REAL FOLK BLUES! The George Mitchell Recordings

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There was a time when all an artist would need to make a good recording was their instrument, a microphone, and a tape recorder. In fact, some of the greatest and most influential recordings of our time were made in rural areas in the back of small country stores or small cabins on equipment that was powered a car battery.  Known as “field recordings”, these recordings were usually done by folklorists determined on documenting maters of American Roots music in a natural setting.

Personally, some of my favorite field recordings where done by music historian George Mitchell. Born in Coral Gables, Florida and raised in Athens, Georgia, Mr. Mitchell has recorded hundreds of hours of music, mostly by musicians who would’ve never been heard outside of their living room if it weren’t for him. He was the first to record Hill-Country Blues guitarist R.L. Burnside in 1967 in Mississippi, a recording session that yielded some the most heart-felt acoustic Blues ever recorded. He also was responsible for some excellent late-in-career recordings of Blues legends Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis.

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In 2008 Fat Possum records complied a large number of George Mitchell’s recordings for a massive 7-disc box-set simply titled “The George Mitchell Recordings Vol. 1-45”.  While the amount of music in this collection may have been perfect for the Blues connoisseur wanting to get completely stuffed on Mitchell’s field recordings, the collection lacked a certain intimacy you get when you focus on just one single artist’s session.  Thankfully, the good people at Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess Records realize this and over the years have released entire sessions from individual artists recorded by George Mitchell. Below are some of my very favorites… No studio tricks, no auto-tune, just a musician and their music.

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R.L. Burnside First Recordings  Recorded in 1968

A popular style of Blues played by musicians from Northern Mississippi, “Hill Country Blues” focuses more on creating a hypnotic rhythm and less on following a specific chord progression. While musicians such as Otha Turner, Jesse Mae Hemphill and Mississippi Fred McDowell (actually from Tennessee) are masters of this style, the two best known Hill Country Blues musicians are Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.  Both Kimbrough and Burnside made their first recordings in the 1960’s with the latter recording for George Mitchell in 1968.

George Mitchell first caught wind of R.L. Burnside while recording another Hill Country Blues master, Otha Turner.  It was Turner who suggested to Mitchell that if he wanted to hear someone who could REALLY PLAY, he should check out his neighbor R.L. Burnside.  Although both Turner and Burnside where unknown to the outside world at the time they were very popular in their respective communities and masters of the their instrument.

During his session for Mitchell, Burnside performed excellent versions of Hill Country standards, “Poor Black Mattie”,  “Goin’ Down South” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin”. He also played a slow eerie-blues entitled “Just Like A Bird Without A Feather”, which is the best track on this wonderful album.

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JOE CALLICOT Ain’t Gonna Lie To You  Recorded in 1967

Recorded in 1967 and reminiscent of recordings by fellow guitarist Mississippi John Hurt,  AIN’T GONNA LIE TO YOU is a mix of Blues standards and Gospel numbers.  Also like Hurt, Joe’s voice isn’t the strongest in the world but yet it wonderfully complements his soft finger-picking guitar style. A perfect example of this is Joe’s beautiful rendition of the Folk standard “Frankie and Albert”.  While Joe’s career actually began in the 1920’s and included recording sessions and performances outside of Mississippi he was never a household name and even gave up music in the 1940’s. Fortunately for us he returned to recording after meeting George Mitchell in 1967.

 

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J.W. WARREN Life Ain’t Worth Livin’ Recorded in 1981 & 1982

 J.W. Warren was born in 1921 in Enterprise, Alabama.  Like many of the musicians recorded by George Mitchell, Warren was a farmer who mostly performed just for friends at parties and in local juke joints. The recordings on LIFE AIN’T WORTH LIVIN’ were done in Warren’s own home in Alabama by Mitchell on September 15th, 1981 and in March 27th, 1982.  Musically, Warren stuck mostly to traditional-sounding Country Blues. His powerful voice is best displayed on the tune “Hoboing Into Hollywood” and at times bares resemblance to the voice of Country Blues legend Bukka White.  Also like White, J.W. Warren was a slide guitar player who’s raw playing style helped him obtain local notoriety. He would scrap his jack-knife against the strings of his guitar to create the sound of a slide (documented here on the recording “My Mind Gets To Wandering”). Mostly a homebody, Warren never toured and rarely travelled out of his hometown. He lived out his final years at home in Ariton, AL, passing away on August 15th, 2003. Fortunately for us we can remember him through these excellent recordings.

ROBERT BELFOUR 1940-2015

Robert BelfourSimilar Artists: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Lightnin’ Hopkins

 

The Beginning: Fat Possum Records and Hill Country Blues

In 1992 a small indie label called Fat Possum Records gave the American Blues scene a much needed kick-in-the-ass when they released the debut album from 62 year-old Bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Entitled ALL NIGHT LONG, the record was met with rave reviews from both critics and Blues fans and gave Kimbrough some well deserved national attention.  Shortly after the success of the Kimbrough record Fat Possum also started having success with another one of their artists, R.L. Burnside. Like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was in his 60’s and a resident of the area surrounding Holly Springs, Mississippi known as the Mississippi Hill Country.  Also like Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was a master of a style of music called “Hill Country Blues”. Different then the well known Delta Blues style, Hill Country Blues focuses more on creating a groove and sometimes features other instruments such as Drums.  With both the Kimbrough and Burnside records receiving some good press, Fat Possum began recording other Hill Country Blues musicians. Unfortunately the label quickly ran into the problem that many of the musicians they recorded were usually older and in very poor health.  Sadly, many of them died before or shortly after their album got released. Down but not out Fat Possum Records kept plugging along and in 2000 they released a record by a 59 year-old construction worker named Robert Belfour.

BelfourFat Possum and Mr. Robert Belfour

Robert Belfour was born in 1940 in Red Banks, Mississippi. Growing up in the Hill Country, he was surrounded by music and learned to play the guitar by watching his father play.  As his interest in the guitar grew he began performing for friends and family at picnics. He continued his musical education by watching local legends like Othar Turner and Junior Kimbrough who both lived in the area and regularly performed at parties and in local Juke-Joints.  Unfortunately when Robert was just 13 years old his father passed away and he was forced to get a job in order support the family.  Then in 1959 Robert got married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He worked in construction for the next 35 years and only played music when he had time. In fact, it was until the late 80’s when he really began to take music seriously again. His first real break came in 1994 he was featured on the compilation album THE SPIRIT LIVES ON, DEEP SOUTH COUNTRY BLUES & SPIRITUALS. The recordings he contributed to the record got the attention of Fat Possum Records and in the year 2000 the label issued his debut album WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU.  A dark-acoustic record, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU showcased Roberts percussive guitar work and rich deep voice. The album featured a mixture of  originals and covers, many of which had been made popular by other Hill Country Blues musicians. The album was a success with many Blues enthusiasts and introduced Robert to an international audience.

BelfourIn 2003 Robert released his second album on Fat Possum, the humorously titled, PUSHIN’ MY LUCK.  Like it’s predecessor, the album was primarily acoustic and pleased both fans and critics. Internationally, Robert’s popularity grew and he started to play a number of European Blues festivals. Back in the states, Robert kept his home in Memphis and continued to be a regular performer on the Juke-Joint scene in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  A dynamic performer into his 70’s, Robert’s shows would usually last late into the the night and sometimes be as long as three hours!  Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Robert Balfour passed away at his home in Memphis on February 25, 2015. Fortunately for us (and thanks to the good folks at Fat Possum Records) his recordings are still readily available and can be found on iTunes, Amazon, and at your local record store.

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Blues and Soul Civil Rights Songs

Blues and Soul music has always contained some of the most moving socially-minded songs. Here are a few of my favorites…

 

Syl-JohnsonSYL JOHNSON “Is it Because I’m Black?”

This moody number might be one of the saddest songs about racial inequality ever written. Released in 1970 on the album IS IT BECAUSE I’M BLACK it’s sung from the point of view of a African American man living in an inner-city ghetto. Guitarist Syl Johnson wrote many songs about “real life” but this might be his finest moment.

 

 

Otis SpannOTIS SPANN “Tribute To Martin Luther King” 

A very somber but moving song about the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Written in 1968 shortly after King’s death and recorded at a tribute concert for Dr. King. Muddy Waters plays guitar on the tack. Available on the album LIVE THE LIFE (Testament Records).

 

 

LeniorJ.B Lenoir “Down In Mississippi” (Album & Song)

An under-rated member of the Chicago Blues scene during the 50’s, Lenior was “rediscovered” by Willie Dixon in the mid 1960’s. He returned to recording in 1965 during the height of the civil rights movement to record two of the most powerful folk blues albums of all time, ALABAMA BLUES and DOWN IN MISSISSIPPI. Produced by Dixion, both albums feature Lenior in strip-down acoustic setting tackling subjects such as Vietnam, James Meredith, and the march to Selma, Alabama.  While these records are hard to find today on vinyl they are available together on a CD called VIETNAM BLUES.

 

NinaNINA SIMONE “Backlash Blues”

Ms. Simone has recorded many songs about the struggle for civil rights but few of them are as soulful as “Backlash Blues”. Recorded for her 1967 album NINA SIMONE SINGS THE BLUES (RCA Records) this song talks about how some public officials used different forms of intimidation to keep African Americans from exercising their civil rights. Lyrics for the tune were penned by Jazz poet Langston Hughes.

 

 

Big BillBIG BILL BROONZY “When Will I Get To Be Called A Man?” & “Black, Brown, & White”

Both of these tunes were written by Broonzy and recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. They can both be found on the CD TROUBLE IN MIND (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings).

Broonzy said he wrote “Black, Brown, and White” in 1939 while he was working as a molder. After he put in many long hours on the job he was told to train an new co-worker (who happened to be white).  Broonzy did as he was told and took the new hire under his wing, teaching him all he knew about molding. Shortly after his training was complete the man he trained was promoted and became Broonzy’s boss!  Weather or not this actually happened to Broonzy is inconsequential. Situations like these did (and unfortunately still sometimes do) happen in our society.

Staple SingersTHE STAPLE SINGERS “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”

Written by Roebuck “Pops” Staples in 1965, “Why Am I Treated So Bad” is one of the most popular Civil Rights songs ever written.  It’s said that Pops wrote the tune after watching what is sometimes referred to as  “Little Rock Nine” on TV.  The Little Rock Nine was a group of nine children who were refused entry to a public school in Little Rock Arkansas because they were African American. Tensions were so high in Little Rock that eventually President Eisenhower had to intervene and sent the National Guard to Little Rock to escort the children into the school.  Outraged by this event Pops wrote this powerful song which he regularly performed at rallies with his group The Staple Singers.  According to Pops’ daughter Mavis, the song was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King. You can find this song on the Staple Singers “best of” collection FREEDOM HIGHWAY: The Epic Years (Epic Recordings).

 

JLHJOHN LEE HOOKER “I Don’t Wanna Go To Vietnam”

While this might not be John Lee Hooker’s best know song it’s definitely one of his most powerful.  From the underrated 1969 album SIMPLY THE TRUTH, this song finds Hooker calling out to his missing friends fighting overseas. Frustrated with the government he sings about the problems going on domestically and asks why they got involved with Vietnam when there were so many troubles at home? This is a beautiful song about a difficult time in U.S. history.

 

Other civil rights songs I recommend…

JAMES BROWN “Say it LOUD, I’m Black and I’m Proud”

THE TEMPTATIONS “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)”

WILLIE HIGHTOWER “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”

THE STAPLE SINGERS Long Walk To D.C.”

BIG JOE WILLIAMS “The Death of Martin Luther King”

STEVIE WONDER “Living For The City”

MANCE LIPSCOMEB Mean Boss Man”

SLY & THE FAMILY STONE “Everyday People”

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: The Story of The Memphis Music Scene

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TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

Directed by Martin Shore

Social Capital Films (Soundtrack available from Concord Music/STAX)

Few cities have played a bigger role in the development of popular music then the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Artists like B.B. King, Otis Redding, Elivs Presley, and Al Green all came to Memphis looking for opportunities that couldn’t be found in their hometowns. Overtime, artists like these changed the sound of the Memphis scene as well as the sound popular music, but they didn’t do it alone. Just as important as the artists, if not more in some cases, are the produces, songwriters, and label owners who took chances with them. The story of the Memphis music scene can’t be told without including people like Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, STAX A&R man Al Bell, STAX Founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and producer Willie Mitchell. These people put up money for studio time, did the promotion, produced the sessions, and in some cases even risked their lives for the music they believed in!  It took many different people from different backgrounds to make the Memphis music scene happen. Now thanks to a new documentary from director Martin Shore, the story of the Memphis music scene is finally be told the way it should be told… by the people who lived it.

Part history lesson, part musical tribute, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER not only tells the story of record labels like STAX and Hi-Records but also shows the recording of the movie’s soundtrack. Recorded in Memphis, the album version of TAKE ME TO THE RIVER (Stax/Concord Music Group) showcases legendary Memphis musicians performing alongside younger players who’ve been inspired by the music of Memphis. While not all the duets might be the perfect match up of artists there’s still something very heart warming about music bringing people from different backgrounds together.  One of the album’s the best duets is the pairing of 72 year-old Soul-Shouter Otis Clay and 12 year-old rapper P-nut on the track “Trying To Live My Life Without You”. Originally a hit for Otis in 1972 the song still sounds fresh. Otis is still in great vocal form and the band is right on the money. While some may view the addition of the 12 year-old P-Nut as some sort of gimmick, it’s anything but. P-Nut nails his part and sounds great. Also, you get the sense while watching the film that Otis legitimately enjoys listening to P-nut rap over his tune.

Another standout duet on the album is the match up of Mavis Staples with The North Mississippi All-Stars on “Wish I Had Answered”. Originally recorded by the Staple Singers in 1963, the song was selected by the All-Star’s own Luther Dickinson. Many times for these type of star-studded duet projects you get bands that sound a little flat even though they’re made up of top-notch studio musicians. This is not the case here. The All-Stars are students of American music and along with an outstanding vocal performance by Ms. Staples, they perfectly capture the original spirit of the tune. Pops would be proud.

If the movie has any faults, it’s only that the short lived Goldwax label isn’t mentioned. Producing singers such as James Carr, Spencer Wiggins, and The Ovations, this little label was started by former Sun Records guitarist Quinton Claunch in 1964. Unfortunately due to money issues and to Carr’s mental instability (he was the label’s star performer) the Goldwax was out of business in 1969. Still, during it’s short lifespan it was responsible for some of the most soulful music to ever come out of Memphis. Still, even without the mention of Goldwax TAKE ME TO THE RIVER gives the viewer and excellent in-depth look at the musical history of Memphis, as told by the people that lived it. Here’s hoping both the film and soundtrack inspire a younger generation to discover this music and make music history of their own.

 

SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS: GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!

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GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT Daptone Records

Full of raw Funk and organic Soul, Give The People What They Want might be Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings finest hour. The album opens with the in-your-face sound of “Retreat”, the album’s first single, before flowing nicely into the Motown flavored “Stranger To My Happiness”.  On both these tunes we hear the band swinging like never before.  For all the credit we give Ms. Jones we need to also recognize the talents of her band the Dap-Kings.  Able to move effortlessly from one style of music to another, these talented musicians are a big reason this album flows so well. On the Latin infused “Long Time, Wrong Time” the band leads the way with a mellow groove reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman”.  Tasteful playing is the name of the game here and the band finds a nice groove behind Sharon’s soulful vocals. Other stand out tracks are the beautiful ballad “Slow Down, Love” and the hard driving “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” (they bust out the tympani drums for this one).  But this record is more then a collection of songs, it’s a reminder that the best things in life are worth fighting for.

In early 2012 Sharon lost her mother to cancer.  On tour when her mother passed Sharon found comfort in her music. Instead of taking a break she kept performing and began working on this album.  Shortly after the recording was complete she started experiencing some health problems  and was diagnosed with cancer herself.  Fortunately doctors caught it in time and Sharon is now cancer free!  Now with a new lease on life and album to promote she’s back and able to do what she does best… and that’s GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!

 

 

RESPECT YOURSELF: The Story of STAX Records

STAX

RESPECT YOURSELF: THE STORY OF STAX RECORDS Bloomsbury USA

Author Robert Gordon has been writing about the music of Memphis for almost 30 years. In Respect Yourself: The Story of STAX Records Mr. Gordon not only tells the story of STAX but also the story of the Civil Rights movement in Memphis.  Passionately written and meticulously researched this book takes you from the label’s meager beginnings in a garage outside Memphis to it’s bankruptcy in 1975.   Along with Mr. Gordon’s narration you hear from the people that made STAX happen, making this book one of a kind.

A LITTLE STAX HISTORY…

Started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1957, STAX Records was more then just a record label.  It was a voice in the community.  The label’s open door policy made it possible for anyone to come in off the street and set up an audition. It didn’t matter where you were from or what the color of your skin was, you were welcomed at STAX as long as you had a passion for music.

Right from the beginning STAX did things it’s own way. Segregation may have been alive and well in Memphis during the 1960’s, but that didn’t stop STAX founder Jim Stewart from hiring an African American DJ named Al Bell to be his lead promotions man.  Working together side by side Jim, Estelle, and Al turned STAX records from a little indie label into a household name!  STAX artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MG’s, Carla Thomas, and William Bell put the label on the map with singles that started appearing on the R&B and Pop charts.  Money was coming in and things were really rolling, until one very dark December day in 1967…

Today many people can remember exactly where they were when they learned that the plane carrying Otis Redding and The Bar-Keys went down. Otis was the soul of STAX and the voice of soul music.  A few months later while the people of STAX were still grieving over the loss of Otis and the Bar Keys their world was rocked again.  On the evening of April 4, 1968  Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  Needless to say, after the assassination of Dr. King everything was different, especially in Memphis.  If all this wasn’t enough,  the label’s distributor Atlantic Records ended it’s relationship with STAX.  With it’s biggest star gone and no way to get music to the stores most label’s would have called it a day, but most labels didn’t have Al Bell.  It was then that Al and the folks at STAX hunkered down and staged one of the biggest comebacks in music history.

The early 70’s found STAX again at the top of the Soul music world. This time around STAX would reach heights that were even greater then it did in the 1960’s.  Al Bell gained full control of the label and STAX rode the success of artists like Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, Johnnie Taylor, and The Staple Singers all the way to the top of the charts.  Sadly this rebirth would be short lived as some questionable business decisions and over expatiation lead to STAX eventually having to declaring bankruptcy in 1975.

 

VISITING MEMPHIS!

Traveling to Memphis!

This past spring I had the privilege of getting to spend a few days in Memphis, Tennessee.   Let me start out by saying that I found Memphis to be a wonderful city with amazing history!  While Memphis has received a bad reputation for it’s level of crime and high homeless population at no time did I feel unsafe.  I had an excellent visit and found the locals of Memphis very friendly and helpful.   If you have any interest in American Roots music or the History of the Civil Rights movement you should start making plans to visit Memphis immediately.

 

MUST DO’s while in Memphis.

National Civil Rights Museum  450 Mulberry St  Memphis, TN 38103  http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/

In my opinion to really understand the history of American roots music you need to learn about the struggle for Civil Rights in this country. Start your visit here! This beautiful museum will set the tone for the rest of your visit.  Located in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the museum elegantly tells the story of the men and women that fought hard for equality in this country.  Learning about the struggle for Civil Rights will help you see why multiracial bands at Stax Records and Fame Studios were so historically significant.

Civil Rights MuseumIMG_0186

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stax Museum of American Soul Music 926 E. McLemore Ave. (901) 942-SOUL  www.staxmuseum.com

Possibly one of the best museums in the United States, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of the little record label that could.  From field workers singing gospel music to the artists of today this museum leaves no stone unturned.  Also the museum doesn’t just stick to talking about Stax artists.  It covers artists from Motown, Atlantic, Chess, Duke, Goldwax (my personal favorite), and everything in-between!  You’ll see things like Issac Hayes’ car, Rufus Thomas Mater Tapes, and a recreation of the studio where Booker T. and The MG’s backed many amazing artists.  The museum has lots of interactive touch-screens and even a full on dance floor!  The staff are very knowledgeable and are dedicated to getting you the whole story of Soul music.  Keep in mind if you’re staying downtown you’ll have to take a cab, bus, or car to get here as it’s a little off the beaten path, but you’ll learn there’s a reason for that.  This museum is worth the short trip from downtown.  Only here will you’ll get the whole story of American Blues and Soul music.

IMG_0250 Stax Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEALE STREET

Although it’s now pretty much a tourist trap, Beale Street should be a stop on your trip.   This is the street where so many musicians got their “start”.  W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Rosco Gordon, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie, all have graced the stages of clubs here on Beale.  There is still plenty of live music here but it can be very hit or miss. Luckily, I had a chance to catch the great Dr. Feelgood Potts while I was here and he didn’t disappoint!  He and his put put on a great show and had the place jumpin’! Check him out if you get the chance!

EATING ON BEALE

Blues City Cafe 138 Beale St, Memphis TN  (901) 526-3637  http://www.bluescitycafe.com/

The one sure thing on Beale that’s around today is the restaurant Blues City Cafe.  Memphis has as many amazing restaurants as it does Blues legends and the Blues City Cafe is one of the best.  Late hours, great spices, amazing BBQ, what’s not to love?  I had some of the best Fried Catfish I’ve ever had in my life here!

 

Blues City Dr. Feelgood Potts

 

The Rock N’ Soul Museum

Located at Beale and Hwy 61 (across the street from the Gibson Guitar Factory)

This museum isn’t as essential as the Stax Museum but it’s still VERY good.  They have an amazing collection of stuff from Ike Turner’s Piano to part of a classic Southern style church.  They cover all the essentials from Gospel to today’s Soul and they have a really nice exhibit on Memphis’ own WDIA!  If you’re short on time and cant’s make it to the Stax Museum then make sure you hit this place up!  It also offers a FREE shuttle to Sun Records and is walking distance to lots of stuff in Downtown Memphis.

 

WDIA  Ike Turner's Piano

 

Another thing to do while in Memphis is vist The Memphis Cotton Exchange Museum.  Cotton was king in the American south and because the history of the Blues has so much to do with the life a sharecropper lived you really can’t pass up this museum.

There’s also Sun Records, the studio where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis, Cash, Jerry Lee, and many others.   Now don’t get me wrong, I like the Rockabilly stuff that was done at Sun Records but I’m personally more interested in the Blues that Sam Phillips recorded with his Memphis Recording Service.  Sadly there is little mention of the Blues at Sun Records today, but to be fair, most of their visitors don’t really seem to care about that.  Most of them probably aren’t even aware that Sam Phillips once called Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” the greatest recording he ever made.   So besides an original wax copy of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” there really isn’t much about the Blues here at Sun Records.  The studio is now very touristy and has a large gift shop and cafe in it.  During my visit I tried to imagine Johnny Cash taking a break from a session to shop for a Sun Records hoodie but it made me sad so I left.  However, if you’re into Rockabilly or Elvis Presley you should make this an essential part of your Memphis trip.

Cotton Museum   Al Green's Church

 

Some other non-essential but fun spots to see Memphis 

Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church,

The Blues Foundation office (when they finish building their Blues museum this will become an essential stop)

West Memphis, Arkansas (The clubs in West Memphis were where musicians from Memphis went to REALLY show their stuff)

Also make sure you check out the site www.msbluestrail.org.  Here you’ll find information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and Historical markers that are set up at spots along the trail where Blues history actually happened!  There are a number of these markers around Memphis and they provide a nice overview of the city’s Blues history.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST…

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

If you’re in Memphis, Tennessee then you’re only about 90 short minutes from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  I HIGHLY recommend taking at least a day and travel down to Clarksdale.    If you’re into Blues, Soul, Gospel, or History you will LOVE Clarksdale.  Here you will get your fill of NO FRILLS BLUES HISTORY.   There is so much to see and do in Clarksdale that I can’t list it all here.  So if you’d like suggestions about visiting Clarksdale please contact me through this blog and I’ll be in touch with you.  Keep in mind that many of the amazing clubs, shops, and museums in Clarksdale are disappearing due to the recent influx of Casinos along the Mississippi river.  So see them while you can!

Happy travels!

 

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Merry Clayton: The Voice Behind the Hits

Merry Clayton

Late one night in 1969 singer Merry Clayton was just falling asleep when she received a call from record producer Jack Nitzsch.  Jack was in the middle of a late night studio session and was desperately looking for a female vocalist to add backing vocals on a track called “Gimmie Shelter”.  Very pregnant and not really in the mood to leave her warm bed, Merry listened while Jack tried to convince her that doing this session with a band called “The Rolling Stones” would be a great career move.  Merry finally agreed to do the session.  It didn’t matter that she’d never heard of the band and wasn’t familiar with their music,  Merry was a seasoned pro. This was just another session gig.  She went to the studio and nailed the track in three quick takes. Then, as quickly as she came in to the studio, she was out the door and gone in the night.  The song became a huge hit and has since become a staple of the Stone’s live show.  Even though it was her singing that took the song to the next level Merry couldn’t bring herself to listen to the track for many years. After her session with the Stones she had miscarriage and lost her baby.  It has been speculated that her vigorous singing on “Gimmie Shelter” contributed to the miscarriage.

Ever since her early performances in the Churches of New Orleans Merry has turned heads with her larger then life voice.  Her professional career started when she backed up Bobby Darin on some of his early recordings.  Form there it wasn’t long before she was selected to be a “Raelette” and sing backup for one of her main influences, Mr. Ray Charles.  Little did she know that singing backup for Ray was just the beginning.  In later years Merry would go on to sing backup for artists such as Joe Cocker, Neil Young, Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd and of course, The Rolling Stones.  Usually the most talented vocalist at whatever session she was working on, Merry signed with Lou Alder’s Ode Record label in the late 60’s. Working with music industry legend Lou Alder, Merry began what many thought would be a successful a solo career.  Unfortunately, her records didn’t sell and most of her solo recordings remain unknown and forgotten about by the general public. That is, until now…

Hopefully 2013 is the year the world will finally know Merry Clayton.  She is the subject of an excellent new documentary called 20 Feet From Stardom that follows the lives of some very talented backup singers.   In conjunction with the release 20 Feet From Stardom Sony/Ode Records has release a collection of Merry’s solo recordings called The Best Of Merry Clayton.  This collection covers most of Merry’s solo career and features soulful renditions of some popular classic rock songs.  One only needs to listen to a few minutes of Merry’s rendition of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” (the album’s opening track) to know that listening to Merry sing is a religious experience.   Very different then the original version, Merry screams and shouts her way through 3 minutes of soulful-funk!  The song takes on a whole new life when Merry screams “…I heard screamin’, bullwhips crackin’, how long is it gonna last?”.   Other great tracks on this album are her versions of Bill Withers “Grandma’s Hands”,  James Taylor’s”Country Road”, and of course the Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” (her first Ode Records release).  In 17 great tracks you get to hear the voice that helped many artists take their songs to the next level.  Here’s hoping that someday soon Merry will reach the high level of stardom that she so rightly deserves.

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BUDDY GUY “WHEN I LEFT HOME”

 

A few years ago while I was doing a blues gig in San Francisco and I got into a conversation with another musician about great Blues guitar players.  “It’s a shame there aren’t any great blues players left” he said.  “That’s not true” I replied, “There are still some of the greats left. B.B. is still around and of course you have Buddy Guy”.  The musician gave me a strange look and said “What?! Why do you like Buddy Guy?  I saw him once and he just played a bunch of Hendrix riffs”.  All I could do at that point was chuckle and reply, “Yeah, well where do you think Hendrix, got some of those ideas from?   Jimi was a student of the Blues and listened to all the blues records he could get his hands on.  The guitar player on many of these records was Buddy Guy. ”

Buddy Guy’s guitar playing has inspired guitar players in every genre of music for over fifty years. Always an exciting live act Buddy,  has taken his exciting brand of electric blues all all over the world.  He’s shared the stage with blues legends like Muddy Waters and rockers like The Rolling Stones.  He’s headlined countless festivals, performed on television and even performed for Presidents and Royalty.  That being said his impressive career isn’t limited just to the stage.  During the 1960’s Buddy was  an in-demand studio musician for Chess records and played lead guitar on many hits by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor.  In short, Buddy Guy has lived enough in his 76 years for three lifetimes, and lucky for us he’s decided to tell his story.

In “When I Left Home” Buddy (with help from David Ritz) takes us from the farm he grew up on in Louisiana to the streets of Chicago.   A master storyteller, Buddy doesn’t hold back when talking about the ups and downs of life as a blues man. With a mother in need of extra medical attention after suffering a stroke, he left Louisiana for Chicago in search work that would able him to not only support himself but also send money back home to Louisiana.  Already proficient on guitar from playing around clubs in Louisiana, Buddy worked himself into the Chicago scene with the help of some local blues fans and eventually with help from the great Muddy Waters.  One would think that this would be the ending of our story, but this is only the beginning.  Over the next several years Buddy works hard to establish himself as one of the premier Blues guitar players on the Chicago scene.  Working as a tow-truck driver in the day, playing clubs and doing recording sessions at night he found himself working night and day to make his dream happen and take care of his family.  “When I Left Home” is the no-nonsense story of George “Buddy” Guy, and like it’s author, this story is THE REAL DEAL.

 

Not familiar with the music of Buddy Guy? Here are some albums I think you might enjoy. There are also many single recordings featuring Buddy, more information on these recordings and the albums listed below can be found in the back of the book “When I Left Home”.

Artist/Album

BUDDY GUY ALBUMS

“Buddy’s Blues” (Best of his Chess recordings)

“A Man and The Blues”

“Buddy and The Junior’s” (Buddy Guy with Junior Wells and Junior Mance)

“Damn Right I Got The Blues”

“Sweet Tea”

“Blues Singer”

“Can’t Quit The Blues” (Box Set)

RECORDS FEATURING BUDDY GUY

JUNIOR WELLS “Hoodoo Man Blues”

MUDDY WATERS “Folk Singer”