Time to go fishin’ for the Blues with BLURT, along with our sister retail business, Schoolkids Records of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill. Herewith, find some shopping and collecting tips for aficionados and newbies alike.
BY FRED MILLS
True story: One afternoon, not all that long ago, I was behind the counter of my job at the time, Schoolkids Records in Raleigh, North Carolina, when a father and son strode purposefully into the store. The father was probably in his late forties or early fifties, the son in his mid-teens. They asked me where our Blues section was, and I duly steered them over to the new vinyl, additionally telling the kid that we also had a lot of new indie rock on the front rack. Because, you know, teenagers.
“I’m just looking for some Blues,” he replied, adding, “I’ve been listening to a lot of my dad’s old vinyl and really getting into the Blues.”
I had the strangest feeling that, right before my eyes, I was witnessing a torch being passed from one generation to the next. I sneaked a glance over at the father, and he had a knowing, proud smile on his face.
A little later, when they brought their purchases up to the counter, he and I easily slipped into an earnest conversation about mutual favorite Blues albums—classic titles like Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, Taj Mahal’s The Natch’l Blues, Albert King’s Live Wire/Blues Power, Howlin’ Wolf’s Moanin’ In the Moonlight (he was pretty impressed that I had met Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, one time and shared a flask of whiskey with him), pretty much everything by John Mayall, along with a very special personal hero of mine, Rory Gallagher. The kid soaked it all in, tentatively throwing out a few titles of his own. When I told the father that his son had good taste, he just grinned, then explained that, thanks to the younger man pulling his battered turntable out from the basement along with several boxes of his old record collection, his own passion for vinyl had been rekindled.
Who’s passing who the torch here, I thought to myself, grinning back at him.
The Blues is like that—it brings people together, bridges economic, social, and generational gaps, and in general just makes you feel good because what’s being expressed in the sounds and the words are universal emotions. When someone is singing about having lost their one true love, you can feel it in their voice—hell, you can feel it in the weeping guitar lines as well. It’s like having a friend there in front of you, opening up, feeling vulnerable, and just needing to have someone listen to them and understand them.
Patti Smith once told me that a key role artists play is that they offer us a shoulder to lean on when we need the support, and while she wasn’t specifically referring to the Blues, I can’t think of a better description of what the Blues brings to the table.
As I mentioned, that was a couple of years ago when I was working at Schoolkids, which now has stores in Durham and Chapel Hill in addition to Raleigh. There’s a 40+ years Schoolkids legacy that I’m proud to be a part of—BLURT is also the indie retail chain’s sister business, as we are owned by the same guy, so even though I no longer live in Raleigh I’m in touch with the crew there on a weekly basis—and I have no doubt that a lot of torches similar to the scenario I just outlined have been passed along in the Schoolkids aisles. This month they’re emphasizing the stores’ selections of classic Blues titles, both on LP and CD, so it should prove an excellent opportunity to either discover some of those classics, if you are a relative newbie, or rediscover them, particularly if you’re someone like the father above.
And since I’ve frequently gone on the record as being increasingly militant about people supporting brick-and-mortar stores and not the impersonal likes of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Target, I’m not reluctant here to suggest you pop into a Schoolkids or your own local indie store, and if poor proximity makes that not an option, you can search for the titles on Schoolkidsrecords.com and then link to purchase. My old employer also has a web sales fulfillment deal arranged with national indie distributor AEC, so even if a title you’re looking for isn’t in stock at one of the stores, AEC will ship it to you if they have it—digital downloads as well.
In 2018, building a Blues collection is not a difficult task because there are enough universally acknowledged classics to give you a solid foundation, even if you’re on a limited budget. In addition, the Blues is remarkably stable and consistent; unlike some genres, EDM for example, you’re not going to have someone reinventing how it’s constructed and/or performed every other week. There will always be intriguing new wrinkles from time to time in the Blues, but even younger artists looking to make a name for themselves tend to approach the genre with respect and reverence while still trying to keep their music fresh-sounding. (Think, for example, of a jam band, which one moment is flying off on a Phish-inspired cosmic tangent, and the next plowing into a down ‘n’ dirty Blues groove as taught to them by the Allman Brothers.)
I could go on for hours about my favorite Blues records, but for the sake of sanity, here’s just a select few. Don’t think I’m offering my version of Blues For Dummies, however—there are plenty of well-documented reasons for why all of these are considered timeless classics.
Howlin’ Wolf is probably my favorite old-school Blues artist, having been a constant presence on the scene starting in the late ‘50s until his death in 1976, and his impact upon the artform continues to be felt to the present day. His 1966 album The Real Folk Blues was originally issued by legendary Chicago label Chess Records as part of their album series of the same name, which also featured Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Everything in the series is essential, with Wolf’s contributions (including More Real Folk Blues) musical templates for Chicago-style Blues at its most primal—it’s downright hypnotic when Wolf and his band, which included the brilliant guitarist Hubert Sumlin mentioned above, slip into one of their signature low-slung grooves.
Wolf’s vocals should be singled out as well, a raspy-yet-tuneful growl/moan that is impossible to mistake; put into a larger cultural context, there would be no Captain Beefheart and no Tom Waits had Wolf not come before them.
Hold that thought: Without Robert Johnson, the most important bluesman ever, the Blues would not have unfolded and evolved the way it did. All paths lead back to Johnson. Born in 1911, he’s the guy from whom all those stories about bluesmen going down to the crossroads in Mississippi (to sell their soul to the devil in exchange for success, natch) are derived. Relatively speaking, he only recorded a handful of sides, but those sides, the core songs originally collected in 1961 long after his death as King of the Delta Blues Singers, exerted an outsized influence on pretty much every serious Blues artist who came after him. You can still hear echoes of “Cross Road Blues,” “32-20 Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” in contemporary Blues songs, both acoustic (which was how Johnson performed) and electric.
God help the archivist who attempts to list every cover version of a Johnson song. And in the feral, keening howl that is Johnson’s vocal style, one hears the existential agony consistently coursing through all classic Blues music. King… has been reissued countless times over the years, both on vinyl and on CD, including in the mid/late ‘80s as an expanded CD box set that not only introduced Johnson to a broader (and younger) audience, it also played a key role in making box sets commercially viable for the record industry.
Everybody has heard of Muddy Waters, arguably the second most important bluesman ever. There’s not a Blues band on the planet that doesn’t have at least one or two of McKinley Morganfield’s—Muddy’s—songs in their repertoire. My first direct exposure to him came with 1968’s Electric Mud, most likely because it was billed as his “psychedelic album” and at that point a teenage me was soaking in a near-100% diet of psychedelia. It was kind of an experiment on the part of Chess Records to try to get Muddy’s music into the hands of kids like me, with his regular backing band temporarily replaced by the younger musicians of Rotary Connection, and for good measure they even did a kind of electric gospel/soul/psych cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
And with more traditional Muddy fare like “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “Mannish Boy” semi-reworked for then-contemporary times, the album is wildly accessible without compromising Muddy’s core vision. While the artist himself was reportedly not enamored of the record, and purist American music critics didn’t take much of a shine to it either, it became the first Muddy album to land on both the Billboard and Cashbox album charts. Further proof of Electric Mud’s staying power? It has been sampled by Cypress Hill, Natas, and Gorillaz, and as Wikipedia informs us, Martin Scorcese’s documentary series The Blues contains scenes of the recording band for Electric Mud performing with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and members of The Roots.
Meanwhile, since we’ve been talking about torches being passed, consider John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, white men from England whose deep appreciation of black American legends led them to bring the Blues to the British marketplace. That singer/harp player Mayall recruited high-profile sidemen like John McVie and Peter Green (who would go on to Fleetwood Mac after their Mayall tenure) and Some Guy Named Eric Clapton, fresh from the Yardbirds, was testimony to his artistic prescience. The 1966 album Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, which not so coincidentally gave that same Some Guy near-co-billing with Mayall on the cover, has seven of its 12 tracks written by earlier Blues artists—among them, Robert Johnson, Mose Allison, Otis Rush, and Freddie King.
The latter’s “Hideaway” is a textbook example of a Texas-Chicago Blues hybrid, and Clapton’s signature riffing is instantly identifiable to anyone even remotely familiar with his work in Cream and as a solo artist. The album as a whole is a perfect example of how British musicians were able to adapt the Americans’ music and carve out a unique piece of turf in the Blues for themselves.
Which brings us to Rory Gallagher. The fiery Irish guitarist, who passed away, sadly, in 1995, at the age of 47, earned an early rep fronting power trio Taste, which put its own unique spin on electric blues much as Clapton and Cream were doing at the same time in England. Following the group’s breakup in 1970, Gallagher embarked upon a prolific solo career, soon adding a keyboard player to round out the guitar-bass-drums ensemble. Yours truly was fortunate enough to see him several times during his heyday, most notably as an unannounced early-a.m. act at the Peachtree Celebration festival in tiny Rockingham, NC, in 1972. Coming on after headliner Alice Cooper had finished, the flannel-shirted guitarist seemed oblivious to the fact that much of the audience had already begun streaming out, and put forth a hi-nrg set that left those of us who stuck around scraping our jaws from the festival grounds.
Check out 1974’s Irish Tour ’74, whose setlist draws extensively from his superb Blueprint and Tattoo studio albums, additionally serving up classic Blues standards from Muddy Waters (“I Wonder Who”), J.B. Hutto (“Too Much Alcohol”), and, on the 40th anniversary box set, Junior Wells (“Messin’ With the Kid”) and Big Bill Broonzy (“Banker’s Blues”). Part of Gallagher’s genius was the way his original material was clearly derived from the Blues but also injected with strong doses of irresistible pop melodies and outright anthemism. Plus, he could play slide guitar like nobody’s business. At least two of the album’s tracks should be on any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roll playlist, “Tattoo’d Lady” and “A Million Miles Away” —the latter a 10-minute tour de force in concert, rife with dynamic shifts and myriad tonal textures all jostling amid a fairly straightforward 12-bar blues chord progression. Irish Tour ’74 makes for a stellar introduction to Gallagher’s oeuvre while also serving as a tutorial on how a lot of white electric bluesmen in the late ‘60s and ‘70s were able to adapt the Blues and make them commercially viable. (Below: Check out a choice live version of “Million Miles Away” from the Rockpalast German TV show in 1979.)
As I already indicated, I could keep going, but maybe I’ll save that for another column. I will, however, leave you with a list of artists well-worth checking out, whether you’re in student mode or simply revisiting old favorites—names like Albert King, BB King, Freddie King (what, no Queens? no Aces?), Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, Leadbelly, Lightning Hopkins, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, KoKo Taylor, Willie Dixon, Albert Collins…
True Story: Albert King passed away in 1992, but I was fortunate enough to interview him in the early ’90s when I was the music editor of an alternative weekly paper. He was scheduled to be headlining a local all-day Blues festival, and for some reason we were able to pull enough strings to land a quickie (like, 12 minutes) phone interview with him for a preview piece in the paper. After some perfunctory comments about The Blues And Its Significance, King and I somehow shifted/devolved into a conversation about, of all things, fishing. I’d heard he was an avid fisher and figured that was a fair topic to broach, so I mentioned to him that I knew a couple of choice spots in the area where one could drop a line, including a pond owned by my family. I harbor no illusions that King eagerly scribbled down my suggestions, but he was gracious enough to take the ball and run with it, talking briefly about why he loved fishing so much. We subsequently turned back to the upcoming event, and soon, sensing my time was about up, I decided to close out with the stock “So, what’s next for you after this?” question.
King paused, gave a little snort, and gave the perfect answer.
“Man, I am tired. I just wanna go fishin’…”