Don’t let the Peter Max-inspired cover art to this collection fool you. This disc contains the kind of music that leaves the listener wondering what might have been had American popular music taken certain turns along the way. Roosevelt Sykes (1906 - 1983) was a barrelhouse blues pianist who stood at the crossroads of several important developments, and he managed to incorporate them all with uncanny ease.
Undeniably Sykes was a bluesman, having been deeply affected by the echos he heard standing at the back of juke joints in his home town of Helena, Arkansas in the late 1910s. Helena is, after all, to Clarksdale, Mississippi what Medina is to Mecca—the original King Biscuit Time originated there. But Sykes didn’t stay in Helena. Like every red-blooded American he hit the road, or the river I should say, floating up and down the Mississippi from Chicago to the Big Easy and all points in between. Tapped into America’s main artery, Sykes was able to feed upon all the essential ingredients of the country’s musical menu. What the listener finds is a natural blend of blues, jazz, and what would later evolve into rhythm & blues, performed with an authenticity that is not only rootsy but invigorating and timeless.
Raining In My Heart includes 17 sides that are most representative of Sykes repertoire, plus four alternate versions and five tracks previously unissued. These were all recorded for the black-owned United label during a crucial period, 1951-53. Recording technology was far advanced over the old days of Paramount, the label synonymous with pre-war blues which went belly-up during the Depression. As a result one is treated to a sense of what barrelhouse sounded like without the frying eggs and bacon of earlier recording efforts. Tad Jones offer a brief but highly informative biographical sketch of the artist, and the disc itself is a handsome reproduction of the original United label which adorned Sykes records during the period. The only thing that doesn’t fit here is the cover art.
Though not exhaustive, this collection contains the must tracks from Sykes’ catalog: “44 Blues”, “Too Hot to Handle (Hot Boogie)”, “Fine and Brown”, and “Security Blues”. On the instrumentals Sykes exhorts himself with shouts and whoops. His playing clearly laid the groundwork for Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, neither of which shared Sykes’ immense vocal talents. However, the surprise delights come via Robert “Sax” Crowder’s tenor saxophone and Remo Biondi’s violin. After my first listen I had to read the liner notes again to convice myself that it wasn’t Coleman Hawkins on sax. Crowder’s work is fully jazz-informed and single-handedly draws together the major components of African-American music. Biondi’s violin is absolutely spine-tingling, incorporating scordatura and tremolo at just the right moments to create an eerie backdrop to an otherwise striding style. The violin is especially effective in counterpoint to Sykes’ celest on “Toy Piano Blues”, a track which, like so many on this disc, explodes the myths of the genre.
Beautifully re-mastered, Raining In My Heart is a trip up river that doesn’t merely evoke nostalgia. It unveils to us the real possibilities of musical by-ways that have been left largely unexplored. Hopefully a new generation of serious young musicians will revists these paths and bring a revival to our ailing pop musicscape.