Blues ‘N’ Boogie is a unique collection of obscure, fun tunes dating from 1945-52. From the onset, the compilation does a nice job of placing this form of black jazz into historic context. Spanning through 18 tracks, this record showcases some genuine honkers (Big Jay McNeely) and shouters (Helen Humes). Also included are rare gems by Little Miss Sharecropper and a young man named Sonny Wilson, who are better known now as LaVern Baker and Jackie Wilson respectively. Not all the performers on this collection became so well known as those recognizable names, but they were integral in keeping the scene alive and pumping. These particular blues and boogies are often filtered through the sound of the big band style arrangements so popular during WWII and the early post-war years, which really sets these tunes as period pieces, though that hardly matters here. This is music of a particular moment in time.
Just reading the name Big Jay McNeely made my mouth pucker in anticipation of a big dose of fat, greasy, schronching R&B sax. Big Jay was born on 110th Street in Watts, California, which was near enough to actually see the tops of the Watts Towers over the low slung one-storey rooftops. McNeely went to school with and lived in the same neighborhood as people like Charles Mingus, Sonny Criss, and the Woodman brothers. For those who don’t know, Big Jay in his locale was quite famous, but more revered and respected than the non-musical King of Watts. McNeely’s renown spread out of South Central into bigger clubs and ballrooms then out into greater Los Angeles, where the city fathers, as the legend goes, eventually passed an ordinance banning his performances anywhere within the city limits.
Even if people had never actually seen McNeely perform, everybody had heard at least one or two stories of what he did (how he walked in the club past the folks seated on the barstools already squealing tones from his sax before jumping onstage to officially start his set), how he played (riffing on the same song for half an hour, before dropping to his knees while still playing, then falling backwards, playing for many minutes laying on his back until his legs stiffened and rose from the floor), or what colors his sax glowed from the phosphorescent decorative paint. It sure seems now that he didn’t record a great deal in his hey-days, but he remains famous and well liked to this very day. He was an inspiration, his instrumental work inspired a number of young saxmen of all colors and his performance dates drew crowds of young people of all races when social mixing of races was still “discouraged”.
His included piece is not the one-note honking of his famous Savoy hit “Deacon’s Hop”, but a crazy big-band swinger called “Man-Eater”, a tune despite the bleats, screeches, and gutteral howls that could easily have made it onto the radio playing in any ‘49 Ford cruising the boulevards. Just hearing this made me want to search out some of the other McNeely releases that have started finding their way into the world again, because McNeely is famous for pumping out loads of good music. In the past few years, McNeely’s music has begun being taught at local universities, the principle topic of a semester-long college seminar at U.S.C.
There’s more but slightly different sax with the incredibly smooth saxophone lead-in to Gatemouth Moore’s “Did You Ever Love a Woman”. And the sound of money. H-Bomb Ferguson’s novelty tune “Bookie’s Blues” begins with a nickel tumbling like a pinball down the slot of a payphone and the sound of five numbers being rotary dialed . Think of it—only five numbers to connect to a local call back then, that’s how small even L.A. was, and only five cents as the local connection charge. H-Bomb starts out like he’s calling his bookie, but it ends up he’s really dropping a dime (well, a nickel actually) on crooked bookies. He sings about Sen. Estes Kefauver’s 1950-51 investigating committee on organized crime, which was looking to put a crimp in the money gangsters were earning tax-free by busting all bookies, crooked or straight: “The Kefauver Committee is pullin’ those bookies in”. Can’t win for losing sometimes, though, when the odds are always stacked heavily in the house’s favor: “People play the numbers / They try their luck each day / If you ever get lucky / The money won’t come your way / Look out for that Committee”.
There are plenty of songs here that talk about “the world on the other side of the looking glass” using the back-street poetry of the time. That means a fair share of tunes about gambling (above) and after-hours drinking (the bust ‘em up piano boogie as Tiny Bradshaw squeals his way into “Take the Hands off the Clock”). Or making sly allusions to sex like Milton Buggs extolling the virtues of a “Fine Brown Frame”, Doc Pomus boasting about “My New Chick”, or Helen Humes squalling out “Helen’s Advice” (backed by none other than Dexter Gordon’s Orchestra. And songs comparing sexual prowess to powerful metaphors, like a car with “V-8 Baby” (Tommy Brown) or even a more powerful “Airplane” (Helen Humes). Which of course usually means the inevitable songs about faithless men and faithless women. Or people just dissatisfied with a relationship, like “Married Woman’s Boogie” where Billy Wright starts out his warning by squeezing his words in edgewise, “Don’t talk me to death, ‘cause I ain’t ready to die”. Nonetheless, a real love song is included. Melvin Moore’s slow and sultry, “I’m Still in Love with You” is just right for a slow dance with the lights turned low or just glancing and sighing at each other across the table.
For a specialty record on a small label, available online at only one major retailer in the U.S., Blues ‘N’ Boogie has been flying off the shelves steadily since release this past March, which made me wonder how did people ever hear about it? As to why they would want to hear it, all it takes is exposure to a song or two and that question answers itself. Here’s the buyer beware part: This is an extended re-release of a comp bearing the same title released by the same company a few years ago, so potential buyers should be conscious that this newer version carries six additional rarities. This Blues ‘N’ Boogie is an especially fine collection, with especially gritty, tell-it-like-it-is (or -was) liner notes that can bring back a world of memories for some while making all listeners want to seek out more of the music.
// Notes from the Road
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