This record is so unbelievably good, I felt like I’d won the Big Spin at the lottery. Big Walter Horton played the blues like no else has done before or since. Sam Phillips said it best, that “When Big Walter played, the blues fell all over you.” While Big Walter attracts top billing on this release, blues fans, archivists, and zealots alike are all assured certain rapture from the rare music of Alfred Harris and James Bannister. If you love early ‘50s Chicago blues as played at their absolute best, just stop reading here and go lay your hands on Delmark’s Harmonica Blues Kings. The record took me back to the blues in a way that’s hard to describe.
The 1954 sessions with the small States label resulted in the first Chicago record under the name Big Walter Horton, “Back Home to Mama” and “Hard-Hearted Woman”. Included also are fine alternate takes of each song featuring Horton’s gruff singing and his powerful harp. Horton is best known as a consummate sideman, his playing could take a regular session into the extraordinary if not sublime. Just think of his hair-raising work with Muddy Waters on “Standin’ Around Crying” (Chess), with Johnny Young on Chicago Blues (Arhoolie), or the entire Volume III of Chicago: The Blues: Today (Vanguard). On Harmonica Blues Kings, Horton plays through a variety of styles on his eight tracks, including some polished, more urbane, downright jazzy rhythm and blues as fronted by the rich voice of Tommy Brown. Brown’s material often has the feel of contrivance or novelty records; he was a comedian in Atlanta. The slinky rhythm and phrasing of “Southern Women” is vaguely reminiscent of the good-natured raunch of “Minnie the Moocher”, but with the strangely stilted line, “I feel so good in the lock of their arms.” Not entirely the result of comparison, the eight songs by Alfred “Blues King” Harris are really down home. Not meaning raw, but somehow essential, the easy, casual feel can belie the underlying complexity. One day’s work in the studio on August 9, 1954 is pretty much all we will ever have of Alfred Harris and James Bannister, so take note and cherish this release. Harris tells of starting a hard life far too early in the living, walking blues in “My Life Blues”. Harris has a clear alto voice, his harp playing follows the same register as his singing, and you know in your bones he is not just authentic, he is sincere.
On “Sundown Boogie Blues”, Harris plays harp notes against the bass player’s lines, a bass occasionally so low and fuzzed it sounds like a jug, while the clean, elegant notes of an electric guitar drop perfectly into the middle range. “Miss Ida” is a 2/4 walking blues with Bannister muffling his drums, an understated resonance that sounds like he’s playing on a thick telephone book or cardboard boxes. It’s almost like he’s beating time on the wooden walls of a barn, recreating an older time more in keeping with the era of the old song.
“Gold Digger” and “Blues and Trouble” are the only two cuts immortalizing the singing of drummer James Bannister. His voice alone is electric, though occasionally enhanced with echo, and the effect of hearing him is almost unearthly. “Yes, I’m a good boy,” he begins, “Why do trouble follow me around?” Bannister apparently began drifting into near-trance states when playing onstage, and he took that as a sign to begin a new life in the Church. By the early ‘60s, Bannister and Harris had completely vanished from the blues life and Chicago, each disappearing without a trace like breath on a mirror.
According to Jim O’Neal and some bluesmen, James Bannister is also remembered for a song he wrote but never recorded. The song which in Bannister’s absence, several others made famous and others laid claim to, “Roll Your Money Maker”. I strongly suspect the royalties for that song have been diligently collected and spent by every one but Bannister. But then nobody knows for sure who the second guitarist or bass player were on the Harris-Bannister session.
Alfred “Blues King” Harris and James Bannister have so much of the extreme and mysterious wrapped about them, that I get chills just thinking about them. Delmark should be praised and praised again for bringing these obscure State sessions back in to the world.