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. (***)
Even as he experimented with new jazz and modern blues, Koester always favored the traditional sounds that hearken back to the deep Southern roots of the blues. That's the core of Homebrew, the first easily available release by guitarist Brewer Phillips. Since Hound Dog Taylor's death in 1975, Phillips, who's best known as the second guitarist for Taylor's legendary power trio, has eked out a living in workhorse bar bands. Born in Mississippi and raised on Delta and Memphis blues, Phillips moved to Chicago in 1958 and immediately hooked up with Taylor, for whom he provided complex, always impeccable rhythms and an occasional blistering lead or vocal. On Homebrew, Phillips -- who's joined by an old cohort, Memphis-influenced pianist Aaron Moore -- remains ever the role player, knowing instinctively when to trade licks, when to shove out front and when to kick back. The hourlong set of straight up blues and boogie has the one-take, barroom quality that so many studio efforts lack. There's nothing landmark or spectacular about this music. It's just a good, old-fashioned feel-good time, the kind that's harder and harder to find. (****)
On the reissue side of the equation, Delmark has added three new items to its superior Apollo Records series. Apollo, a New York label that hit the streets running in 1944, signed a number of artists who were trying new permutations of tired forms. The line between jazz and blues was especially challenged as World War II came to a close, a state of mind evident on Willie Bryant: Blues Around the Clock. A playful batch of songs about sex and stimulants (carefully couched, of course), the 21 cuts feature noted vocalist Bryant and his various big bands, with tasty contributions from a young Doc Pomus and a couple of talented no-names. The singing is enough to validate this collection, but it's the brass, whether a lilting lonely sax solo or a wall of horns blowing in sweet unison, that puts it over the hump. And thanks to Koester, the remastering left most of the original smell instead of sanitizing away all the character, as some reissuers are wont to do these days. (****)
If Apollo had one consistent hit maker, it was singer Wynonie Harris, a West Coast R&B sensation whose allure and showmanship translated well to the studio. Everybody Boogie, recorded at four different sessions in 1945, captures Harris at his youthful best, and it's easy to picture him delivering the double-entendre novelty lyrics, flirting with a swooning and stomping audience. Four different jazz masters of the day, including tenor saxman Illinois Jacquet and bassist Oscar Pettiford, led the four sessions, which mixes up the sound when Harris' somewhat repetitive stylings threaten to overload listening capacity. Throughout, it's the work of sax players Jacquet, Jack McVea and Wardell Gray, and other jazz contributions from the likes of Pettiford and Charles Mingus, that sets this reissue apart. (PPPP)
Rather than the growling gravel of Chicago's blueswomen, the New York crowd preferred a more sophisticated sound. Apollo invested sparsely in women vocalists, none of whom achieved any significant level of stardom. But they did cut some memorable sides, as evidenced by Blu Lu, Wee Bea & Baby Dee: Don't You Feel My Leg. Blu Lu Barker was the best known of the three featured singers, due in large part to her association with husband Danny Barker, one of the preeminent guitarists of his day. Her nine songs include the original, and superior, version of the title track, which Maria Muldaur later turned into a hit. Like Barker, Wee Bea Booze and Baby Dee had more in common with the jazz lounge than the juke joint. Sultry, seductive piano, guitar and horn arrangements carry this music from the just-plain-good into the worthwhile category. (****)
-- Bob Burtman
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