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.
The instrumental "Donald's Idea," credited to Wilkerson, couldn't have had any hope for success on the charts of the day, but it's nice indeed to hear the saxophonist having fun at the peak of his powers. Obviously, over the many years Milburn recorded, there are low points. The success of 1950's "Bad, Bad, Whiskey," and the practice of following up a hit with a string of near-identical songs, resulted in "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," "Good, Good Whiskey," "Vicious, Vicious Vodka" and so on to the point of repetitiveness, with only "Let Me Go Home, Whiskey" approaching the impact of the initial track. By the mid-1950s Milburn seems to have been clutching at straws in attempts to regain his slipping prominence, with the abysmal "We Teenagers Know What We Want" and "Shake, Shake" presenting an obviously adult artist desperately trying to pass as a teenybopper. But before these sad final sessions there were years of magic that changed music forever. Mosaic has done a tremendous job of remastering and researching Milburn's music and life; the limited-edition result testifies that he was unquestionably one of the founding fathers of rock. Mosaic releases are available through mail-order only, and The Complete Aladdin Recordings is limited to 3,500 copies worldwide. For more information, call (203) 327-7111 (*****).
History of a different sort can be heard on John Mayall's latest, Spinning Coin. A life in the blues is inevitably cyclical. Heights, once scaled, seldom become plateaus, and it takes luck, talent and dedication to not drop out of sight, at least occasionally. Mayall's profile may not be as high as when he and his Bluesbreakers were at the height of the British blues explosion of the '60s, but his innovative interpretation of the Delta blues sound is as strong as ever. This album showcases the wide spectrum of Mayall's talents, from traditional blues harp on "When the Devil Starts Crying" to a ferocious rockabilly, boogie-woogie piano on "Fan the Flames." It's not an issue that will redefine Mayall's extensive catalog, but Spinning Coin proves beyond any doubt that he's still very much in the game (***).
Say it out loud -- Mighty Sam McClain. It's one of the more onomatopoeic stage names in memory -- rhythmic, blunt yet eloquent, powerful without being threatening. The man's name is a lot like his music. He's the most powerful soul singer since O.V. Wright, fusing blues and gospel into an intensely personal statement. The liner notes of his new Keep On Moving hint at some very rough years between a semilegendary 1966 soul cover of Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" and his well-received 1993 comeback on AudioQuest. There's a very real sense of triumph over pain in McClain's rich baritone voice, and a range to his phrasing that invites favorable comparisons to Van Morrison. Through nine original songs -- many of them co-written with guitarist Kevin Barry, whose licks do much to keep this album more blues than soul -- and elegantly appropriate covers of Al Green's "Lord Will Make a Way" and Ronnie Earl's "A Soul That's Been Abused," McClain radiates authenticity. This is his pain, his struggle, his love that he's talking about. When he talks about his faith there's no doubt that he's drawing from a deep personal well. And when he moves from sacred music to secular, Sam McClain, standing on a rich foundation of horns and keyboards, gives up the strongest reminder in years that there's just nothing sexier than that sweet soul music (****).
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The turn of the century saw a remarkable incident of parallel development in the Mississippi Delta and Texas as two similar yet profoundly different styles of playing the blues emerged. Between these two close relatives, another, lesser-known sibling in southern Louisiana added its branches to the family tree. Swamp-boogie remained perhaps the "purest" (or most resistant to tinkering) of the regional blues forms. It was a minimalist style of drums, guitars and harmonica that -- even when amplified -- radiated the aura of a kerosene-lit juke joint down by the bayou.
The last original practitioner of swamp-boogie guitar was probably Silas Hogan, who died last year at the age of 82. Hogan had worked a refinery job and played around Baton Rouge with the Rhythm Ramblers for years before coming to the attention of Crowley, Louisiana, producer Jay Miller. The meeting resulted in a string of 45s that were recently released on CD as Silas Hogan: Trouble. The Best of the Excello Masters. The CD is 26 tracks of one of the premier artists of a foreboding, moody style that manages to both embrace and transcend an inherent primitiveness. With the exception of "Sittin' Here A Wondering" and the unreleased "So Glad," Trouble has Hogan, rhythm guitarist Isaiah Chatman, Houston guitarist Jimmy Dotson as a teenage drummer and the remarkably restrained Sylvester Buckley on harmonica recreating in the studio a solid, traditional blues sound they had been polishing to a perfect shine in Louisiana juke joints. Silas leads the band in a clear, mature voice, and with nary a bass guitar in sight for the most part, this is blues stripped down to the basics (*****).
-- Jim Sherman
***** Serious blues
**** Sorta dismal
*** Feeling poorly
** Doin' all right
* I'm okay, you're okay