Various Artists

Savoy Blues 1944-94

by Robert R. Calder

22 January 2004


Bran Tub (Less rather than More) Blues

It says “50 years of Savoy Blues” at the beginning of some shabby notes that are not short on equal falsehoods. There was indeed a legend that Joe Glaser (I correct Billy Vera’s spelling) hired Hot Lips Page around 1940 to “stifle” potential competition to Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was having such lip trouble at the time, Glaser most likely just wanted a possible replacement. Lips was magnificent, but he was hardly Armstrong. Billy Vera, producer (whatever that means) and below standard editor and annotator of this three-CD set in the Savoy Jazz series tells us that Lips “was a lively, engaging performer and a powerful trumpet soloist in a day when the line between blues and jazz was a blurry one”. Hogwash! What day would that be?

Lips Page came up in Kansas City, and there (and in few other places) some of the music produced really was jazz with more intense blues than was elsewhere usual; and blues which remained intense despite how much jazz was in it. Big Joe Turner could record with the Elmore James band one time without the least stylistic discrepancy. He also recorded with some very Europeanly sophisticated jazzmen, as did Lips Page. This was purely a regional factor, or is Vera trying to say Buck Clayton could have played with Tommy McClennan, or Big Joe Williams? Kansas City was a place and not a “day”, and influence from or through there had a lot to do with the subsequent sub-genre of Rhythm & Blues. Jazz and blues had no single common musical origin.

cover art

Various Artists

Savoy Blues 1944-94

(Savoy Jazz)
US: 23 Sep 2003

Lips is featured at the beginning of a fairly clumsy selection of very good 1940s jazz-blues from a Savoy catalog handled infinitely better by previous reissues. Miss Rhapsody (Viola Wells) sings on her title in a 1920s style, but instead of providing even minimal details of personnel, gossipy Vera tells us that Miss Rhapsody’s band was led by the brother of the drummer Cozy Cole. Rueben Cole, yes: but what, Mr. Vera, did the guy play?

Certainly out of place is Billy Eckstine’s “All I Sing Is Blues”, a pop-song whose only reference to “the blues” is metaphorical. Eckstine sang more than blues. Another two Eckstine titles do show he could be a very effective blues shouter on the general Joe Turner sort of model, notwithstanding his polished delivery.

Quite what a down homey duet between Brownie McGhee and Jack Dupree (the latter at his very best on piano) is doing on a first CD otherwise made up entirely of jump music? Dare one suggest that Billy Vera might have cloth ears, as the English say? Or did the wrong McGhee title go on CD1, since McGhee appears guitarless in a jump band setting on CD2, incongruously added among an unadventurous selection of John Lee Hooker items. You might be interested to hear that with his longtime partner Sonny Terry McGhee appeared on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow and that they played for folkies and people Billy Vera calls “Socialists” (etc., etc.), but who’s the tenor player on his jump blues side? Hooker, we are told, “shows up on this set both at the beginning of his long career, when he was working exclusively for blue collar blacks, and in his later period, when his fan base consisted of young white kids.” We are further informed that “Interestingly, the changes in his approach were only minor”. This isn’t true, since first there is quite a change in style. Ludicrously, the later items aren’t from anything like a “later period”, unless the sleeve details are wrong and the subsequent items don’t come simply from the late nineteen fifties, by which time Hooker’s fan base still wasn’t white kids, young or old.

12-bar R&B performances take up much of the rest of CD 2, 1948-‘52, and since one of the first blues albums I ever bought was an ungenerously filled vinyl disc with twelve items from the Savoy list from that period or a little later I had been expecting to hear some old friends. Perhaps the titles leased long ago by the genuinely visionary Arnold Caplin for his Biograph label, many of them never issued by Savoy, were not available? This excuse for a selection needs all the excuses it can get. And we have had nothing of Cousin Joe, who recorded some splendid things for Savoy! I could give a list, but surely somebody else was paid to do research?

CD 3 takes us to 1957, Nappy Brown and Big Maybelle and two titles from a curious album distinguished by the guitar of M.T. Murphy (whom B. Vera does not even mention) and on which a couple of saxophonists manage to drown out the cheap effects and bum notes of Memphis Slim’s flashy piano. 1961 that was, and we leap suddenly to 1970-1973, with an odd mixture of tracks from Eddie Kirkland of which “When I First Started Hoboing” is outstanding. Then there’s Robert Lockwood, with a brilliant “Forever on My Mind” on the same tune as Brother Montgomery’s “I Keep on Drinking”. These are from the Trix catalogue, presumably available to Savoy but hardly accessed. There’s one heck of a lot more on Trix more detailed complaints could publicise free.

From the 1980s there is nothing, zero, but hollowness is something this presentation lets one get used to. There are two nice enough Charles Brown items from 1992 and the Muse label, representing years 1972-94: 11 years apiece? This set is just a jumble and if you want to hear the musicians, there are better compilations.

I deplore the failure to explore in any meaningful sense the Savoy catalogue, to consider a CD of some of the wonderful down-home blues set down long ago. There could have been a set with even more of the at times brilliant 1940s material (most of which came out decently presented in ordered selections on vinyl not in bargain standard jumbles like this). LaVern Baker recorded as Little Miss Sharecropper and she was the niece of Memphis Minnie? I’ll tell you something more interesting, Memphis Minnie and Sunnyland Slim titles were owned by Savoy years ago; and there’s not one here!

Fifty years? And all that gossip about what happened when Big Maybelle took her shoes off onstage… Presumably a balanced programme?

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