Various Artists

This Is the Blues Harmonica: Vol. 2

by Robert R. Calder

2 March 2005


A respectable collection, culled from music Delmark either recorded in-house, or acquired by those purchases of old small labels’ stocks which seriously enhance their lists.

A listing seems the most apt way in which to discuss this set, since a general characterization could coincide with the same reviewing treatment of one or another roughly similar collection. Who’s on this?

cover art

Various Artists

This Is the Blues Harmonica: Vol. 2

US: 14 Dec 2004
UK: Available as import

Well, there’s Junior Wells: young, in an unissued take from 1953 with Little Johnny Jones on piano in the band.

Hammie Nixon was arguably one of the absolute masters of the instrument, especially on the titles 70 years back with Sleepy John Estes, whose guitar-playing sounded rudimentary until you realized how he could weave in and out and hit the most telling notes, chords, phrases, as if by accident. Nixon interwove with Estes as if by miracle. The never-issued title from archives which exist beyond Delmark’s astonishing legacy of new Estes recordings is a “Careless Love” variant. Estes is OK; Nixon was never uninteresting.

A current veteran of a much later generation, Carey Bell’s usually magnificent. Here he plays “Carey Bell’s Rhumba”. He’s followed by Mark Hummel, on a track from the Specter-Freund band issue Delmark released simultaneously with this set. Then there’s Shaky Jake, whose surname is Harris and whose playing is beautifully fluent. He came to Europe on a very early blues package 40 years ago, performed off-stage feats of telepathy and rather boggled collectors by never having recorded much. The notes say he was more interested in being a professional gambler. The psychic powers presumably helped. Here he’s with his tragically short-lived nephew Magic Sam Maghett.

Walto Pace, the notes tell me, was even more obscure than Shaky Jake. His recordings (he was mainly a singer-guitarist) were made and paid for as part of Delmark’s independent archiving of blues, with small prospect of issue other than at a loss. I’ll grant that he’s unknown, since nothing else seems to have been issued as yet (or listed in discographies?). Here he performs the almost pre-blues traditional vehicles “Fox Chase” and “Lost John” as recorded by many unknowns for the official Library of Congress and by a few for the touring recording units commercial record companies sent down South in the 1920s and 1930s. Nice to hear these things again.

Mad Dog Lester Davenport has been around since the 1950s, but not so that collectors knew even his name. His instrumental “West Side Blues Harp” seems to be another not quite archaic sample. The style is flowing and the sound has some of the metallic-echoey character critics used to call “the tin bath effect”.

“Rollin’ & Tumblin’”, under the name of Little Walter, comes from a session cut on the wrong side of existing contracts with the Chess label, for a minor label whose material Delmark commendably acquired some time ago and has been issuing. This is a real oddity, sounding like a primitive performance by three men playing harmonica (Walter), guitar (no less than Muddy Waters), and drums (Leroy Foster). The three men interweave their voices in a humming-cum-singing when Walter isn’t blowing his magic harp.

When he was blowing it on numerous other sessions, Louis Myers played guitar. Myers was also a very accomplished harmonica player, which one can be without being quite in Walter’s class. The fact adds interest to a track with Magic Sam on guitar which mostly imitates Jimmy Rodgers’s “That’s Alright”. The imitation’s an intriguing curio, the harp playing (wasn’t Walter on the original?) adds distinction in difference.

From the Koester-acquired United catalogue comes Alfred Harris, from 1954; Tad Robinson is really a jazz singer, if anything, but one can overlook that slight incogruity for his wailing playing with a young band on his 1994 Delmark album. Little Sammy Davis playing chromatic harmonica, from his 1993 Delmark album, does an instrumental “Devil’s Trail” which doesn’t diminish my awe of Carey Bell’s blues playing on the mouth-organ with the key-shift button. Unlike Bell, Davis here sounds like Toots Thielemanns, if bluesier than that Belgian jazzman ever sounds.

Little Mack Simmons is heard in a title from an Eddy Clearwater date, fine, but Big Wheeler (whose given forename is “Golden”) is almost a soul performer rather than a bluesman.

Then, from the CD which his 1954 session shares with that of Alfred Harris, we have Big Walter, surname Horton, whose earliest recordings were made with the dwarf Little Buddy Doyle in 1938 in Memphis. This is a terrific track, with two saxophones in the band (John Cameron turned up on blues dates around 1940, Red Holloway has at times been a magnificent jazz soloist much, much more recently). Big Walter’s singing could be a letdown on some titles, but he made some of the greatest blues harmonica recordings; “Easy” is an instrumental solo of outstanding power and intensity, “Evenin’ Sun” with Johnny Shines a phenomenon of swing (at one stage in the solo impersonating the Count Basie band).

To round things off, there’s Eddie Burns, also known as a guitarist and performer 50 years ago on rare and brilliant harmonica-guitar duet performances with John Lee Hooker. Oddly enough, “Hastings Street Special” (the street is in Detroit) seems startlingly slick and remote from what would be expected from a veteran. Even more startling are some of his collaborations with Hooker, which aren’t at all like this. Nobody played that way back then. The whole thing with its ups and slight downs is an amazing conjuring of the experience no doubt young Bob Koester had when seeking out as a fan original 1950s single records, such as he combines here (now that he owns the remains of the companies) with his own company’s more recent studio productions. An amazing variety of surprises. All human blues is here.

This Is the Blues Harmonica: Vol. 2


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