Sugar Blue – Threshold

January 01, 1970



Sugar Blue, who was born James Whiting in Harlem
in 1950, laid down one of the greatest and most famous harmonica tracks in the
history of rock ‘n’ roll when he soloed on the song “Miss You” on the Rolling
Stones’s album Some Girls in 1978.
(That’s not Mick playing the harp.) Blue also played on their next two albums
and turned down the band’s offer of a permanent session spot in order to go out
and have a solo career.


If you just know Blue from “Miss You” you know that he is a
virtuoso on the harmonica. That is also abundantly evident on his latest CD, Threshold. And like a true genius, his
sound transcends genres. The Stones were in their (thankfully brief) disco
period in the late ‘70’s but they were smart enough to never lose sight of the
fact that they started as a blues band. Hence even as they picked up the dance
beat, they hired a blues harp player to solo on their hit single. But Blue was
not a Delta or Chicago
blues musician. He was born in New
York City. His mother was a singer/dancer who worked
at the Apollo Theater. So while he had been playing the harp since the age of
10 and had gigged with the likes of Muddy Waters as a teenager, he was also
influenced by jazz greats like Lester Young and rock artists like Bob Dylan. On
the advice of expatriate blues master Memphis Slim, Blue moved to Paris, where he met the
Stones. He came back to American in the mid ‘80’s and did two remarkable solo
albums for Alligator Records.


But his recording output has been scarce. Threshold” is only his sixth album. So
any album by Blue is a treat and he does not disappoint here. Nine of the 11
songs are originals and he effortlessly mixes genres from the jazzy sound of “Average
Guy” and “Cotton Tree” to the New Orleans second
line sousaphone that appears at the end of “Noel News” to the hard driving Chicago blues of the
Junior Wells classic “Messin’ with the Kid.”


Of course, what characterizes all these songs are the technically
dazzling and fluid runs Blue gets out of his harp. On “Ramblin'” Blue pays
tribute to his days working as a street musician in Washington Square
Park as a kid. Blue plays
both harp and Chromonica bass harp on the track. While on the cover of the Leiber
and Stoller blues song “Trouble” made famous by Elvis, Blue engaged in a
vigorous call and response with his harp.


The two surprises on the CD are Blue’s vocals, which are
smooth and soulful, and the topical nature of his songs. Mixed in with sweet love
songs are some angry political songs about the injustice of America’s
ghettoes, the economic destruction of the middle and working classes and our
perpetual wars. It is on these songs that Blue shows his greatness as a
songwriter. On “Average Guy” he sings, “The average guy understands the
blues…Blue collar sweat to pay for white collar crime.” And the album’s
masterpiece, “Stop the War,” is as powerful as any anti-war song ever written.
Blue sings, “They call it war. I call it murder in the first degree…They’re
spilling blood for profit and killing our democracy…Among the Unknown Soldier
lie a little girl and boy…Stop the war. Kill no more.”


Listening to Sugar Blue wail on the final song on the album,
“Nightmare,” makes it easy to see what Mick and Keith saw in him in Paris all those years
ago. The song is loosely based on the blues standard “Backdoor Man” but Blue
lets loose a blistering harp solo that turns the song into a hard rocker. One
can only imagine how much greater the Stones’s albums of the last two decades
would have been if Blue had chosen another path. But it is pleasure enough to
listen to Sugar Blue himself on this CD. Sugar Blue is musician who has never
gotten the public recognition he deserves.


Standout Tracks: “Stop
the War,” “Ramblin’,” “Messin’ with the Kid,” “Nightmare” TOM CALLAHAN 



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