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The record industry is littered with the carcasses of small independent labels that reflected the visions of their founders. Following their hearts rather than their heads (or their wallets), the independent entrepreneurs often start with a flair, but then fall by the wayside as the big boys co-opt their ideas or lure away their artists, or as burnout overcomes youthful zeal. Generally, the independents who do survive manage by combining business acumen with their passions and building successful companies that continue to grow.

That, though, isn't the way Bob Koester did it. Koester, the man behind Chicago's oldest blues and jazz indie, Delmark Records, defies the mold. A throwback to the days when someone with good taste, a few bucks and a wild hair would put out a couple of sides and peddle them to radio stations and record shops from the trunk of his car, Koester's survived the ravages of his profession purely by catering to his own personal passions. With little concession to what might be considered economic reality, he continues to put out some of the finest music on the planet much as he always has -- 43 years after he started.

Koester first tried his hand as a mogul in St. Louis during the fledgling days of the LP. Obsessed with old jazz and blues, he opened the Blue Note Record Shop, buying 78s on the cheap and reselling them. At the same time, he started Delmark by recording such abandoned but noteworthy blues players as Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes and Speckled Red. Then, in 1958, wanting to be closer to the heart of the matter, Koester moved to Chicago; soon after, he bought what would become the Jazz Record Mart, a funky collector's palace that still draws aficionados from around the globe. Scraping and clawing to keep afloat financially, he built a respectable catalog by recording lesser-known artists he felt deserved attention and buying the masters of albums by memorable performers from defunct regional labels for reissue.

Willing to commit anything to disc that struck him as noteworthy, Koester was the first to take a chance on some of Chicago's jazz innovators. His reputation as a producer who gave musicians almost complete latitude in the studio drew to Delmark a number of brilliant artists who knew the label would never make them rich.

Commercial success has never been an objective for Koester, whose label's biggest seller -- Hoodoo Man Blues, the Junior Wells classic -- tops out at only around 60,000 sold. For Koester, the most important thing is simply making the music available; in fact, he's mentored several young devotees who have went on to form labels of their own, the most notable being Bruce Iglauer, who's built Alligator Records into the most recognized label in Chicago Blues.

As has been the case at many small labels, the advent of the CD juiced Delmark's bottom line, rejuvenating sales of old records. Not that availability was ever a problem -- Koester believes in keeping all his releases in print, no matter how slowly they trickle out of the warehouse. At the same time, he continues to put out batches of new and reissued music by musicians either semi-obscure, or simply obscure.

Foremost among Delmark's current crop is Mercurial Son, a brooding tour de force by guitarist Lurrie Bell. The son of harp player Carey Bell, Lurrie had virtually disappeared from view after some solid, if unspectacular, efforts with his father and with Sons of Blues, a band composed of other second-generation performers. Beset by personal demons, Bell pawned his guitar and endured stretches of substance abuse and homelessness on Chicago's mean streets before Delmark decided to take a risk and lure him into the studio. The results prove that if you've got to suffer if you want to sing the blues, then Bell's qualifications are clearly unmatched. With a borrowed guitar, he creates a violent tableau of gut-level blues on the order of Otis Rush's Cold Day in Hell or the penitentiary blues of Robert Pete Williams. Backed by the relentless, primitive pounding of drummer Steve Cushing (who wrote much of the material) and the throbbing thump of bassist Willie Black, Bell plays an erratic array of notes, first minimalist and edgy, then bursting forth like a scream. Bell's world of sinking suns, cold blood and raw meat is three-dimensional and painful, even when he sings of love. If his head holds out, Mercurial Son should not only boost Bell back into the ranks of the living, but to the pinnacle. (*****)

Ever since the blues moved north, Chicago has been home to a crowd of talented women blues singers who toil in the sweaty environs of the city's multitude of small clubs and juke joints. Occasionally, one breaks out of the pack and achieves the recognition she deserves (Koko Taylor among them), but for the most part, they're taken for granted by the locals, while those outside the Chicago city limits don't even know they exist. Women of Blue Chicago spotlights six working-class shouters and crooners known to regulars at the Blue Chicago club. Four of them -- Big Time Sarah, Bonnie Lee, Karen Carroll and Katherine Davis -- have appeared previously on solo Delmark releases, but the disc doesn't have the thrown-together feel of some samplers. Their styles range from the guttural beltings of Lee and Carroll to the jazzier tremolo of Shirley Johnson, with Sarah playing switch hitter. The backing bands display equal diversity, straight guitar and piano 12-bar arrangements giving way to a punchy, horn-led swing tune. (***)

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