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Sound Check

It's been about a century since W.C. Handy found himself waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Also on the platform was a ragged man who monotonously repeated the line "Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog" while sliding a knife down the neck of a guitar to produce what Handy called "the weirdest music I had ever heard."

That experience, recounted in Handy's Father of the Blues, inspired Handy to write and perform many of the earliest popular blues songs. This uniquely American music has been attacked from the pulpit as the devil's music and studied by scholars who consider the blues to be the richest of all American folk arts. Even among devotees there's a tendency toward divisive elitism -- it's not blues unless it's pre-World War II and acoustic, white guys can't play the blues and other ethereal nonsense -- that misses the idea that every blues note ever played was an evolutionary state in a bloodline that has bred remarkably true. If music -- from big band jazz to rock and roll -- goes straight from the stage or speaker to the listener's heart, it's just some more of those old blues.

Prior to the ascendancy of the electric guitar, the spotlight instruments of a hard-charging band were the saxophone and the piano. Mosaic Records, a label best known for archival jazz reissues, recently released a rare, fascinating look at Amos Milburn and the Chickenshackers -- an incredibly innovative, historically neglected Houston band that pushed piano-tenor boogie-woogie into the national spotlight and forged critical links between "race" records and a new sound called rock and roll.

The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Amos Milburn is a limited-edition seven CD (or ten LP) box set featuring 145 songs by Milburn that trace his career from recently discharged WWII Navy steward's mate to recording star at the top of the charts to the beginning of his slide into obscurity. There probably would have been rock and roll without Amos Milburn, but it would have been a different beast than what we know today. Milburn's "Hold Me Baby" and "Chicken Shack Boogie," both released in 1947, marked the beginning of a half-decade reign over Billboard's R&B charts and a comet-like career that foreshadowed the fate awaiting many of the rockers who followed.

The box set's copious liner notes -- de rigueur for Mosaic -- supplement Milburn's music with exhaustive details about his life and career. And the music itself proves what old-timers from Sunnyside to Trinity Gardens have been saying for years: it may be hard to find Milburn's records, but it would be even harder to find a better piano player.

Sadly, after the celebrity years there were the years of obscurity and comeback attempts and self-destructive drinking, and then strokes that stilled a left hand that could pitter-patter like rain on a tin roof before it called in the thunder. The amputation of Milburn's pounding, pedal-popping leg foreshadowed the 1980 death of what was by then a penniless, piano-less, 52-year-old North Houston man. The doctors said Milburn's death was due to complications from the amputation. The old-timers just say it may have been time for him to go.

The Complete Aladdin Recordings shows what was lost. It is as much a timeless musical romp as it is a historical testament. Listening to both the blues and the boogies -- a basic, if simplistic, separation of Milburn's strengths -- the eternal excitement Milburn has engendered is understandable. When he played and sang the blues, Milburn could damn near kill you, or at least make you consider drinking yourself to death behind songs about bad, bad whiskey and worse women. But when he pounded and shouted that gleeful, ecstatic boogie-woogie, you'd have to be dead to stay off the dance floor.

It's the boogies scattered through the Mosaic set -- from the definitive "Chicken Shack Boogie" to the quintessentially picaresque "Greyhound" to the phenomenal, inexplicably previously unreleased "Wolf on the River" -- that show the effect Milburn had on Fats Domino, Little Richard and every rock pianist thereafter. Among the reams of items of local interest related to this issue is the extensive presence of veteran guitarist "Texas" Johnny Brown when, to judge from a photo in the notes, his teenage years were still a recent memory.

Also of historical note -- not to mention fun -- are numerous opportunities to understand why any old-timer Houston rap session immediately turns to Donald "Duck" Wilkerson when the tenor sax becomes a topic. Milburn's years with Brown and Wilkerson -- and drummer Calvin Vaughan -- were easily his most innovative and inspired. To judge from the number of never-issued songs from that period collected in this set, the Brown/Wilkerson years were also productive beyond the marketplace's ability to absorb the releases. There's also the possibility -- almost unthinkable, considering the conditions of the music industry in the late '40s -- that someone at Aladdin understood that Milburn was creating more than transitory pop hits, and that what he was creating should be saved, because some of the unissued tracks are inexplicable in any commercial context applicable to the era.

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