[19 October 2005]
James Dixon—sounds like the name of a blues artist, no? No relation to Willie, of course, but they do share Chicago as the city of their musical roots. But while Willie made his imprint as a producer/bassist/recording artist under the banner of Chess Records, James’ story was one of those murky ones that usually don’t get told.
A bit of background to digest: Dixon took on the moniker of Blind Arvella Gray in the ‘30s (he was born in 1906 and died in 1980) after he lost his sight. Nobody truly knows what happened there, but Gray told different stories every time he was asked; from losing his sight in a bar fight to an incident in a brothel. He also lost his thumb and index finger in the same incident, so in his quest to play the blues, he adopted the slide as his main way of getting around the fretboard. He started playing guitar shortly after his blindness, and by 1946, he was an icon on Chicago’s blues highway, better known as Maxwell Street.
After cutting a few singles in the ‘60s Gray, along with friend and overseer Cary Baker, went looking for a place to record a proper album. A series of events led them to Birch Records, which agreed to finance and release an album. So with an all-nighter in the studio in 1972, Gray came out of it with 15 songs; a mix of originals and traditionals. Eleven were chosen for the album that would become The Singing Drifter. Only 1,000 copies were pressed, though, so it was a tough find as time went on. Baker wanted to reissue Drifter in ‘80, but Gray felt he had better material to throw together a brand new album. Sadly, as plans were being made for the new album (and a subsequent tour), Gray passed on. Twenty-five years later, Baker wanted to re-release Drifter, and secured the rights from Birch Records, with the condition that a new label would come to fruition for the release. Thus, Conjuroo Records was born, and it’s first spawn became The Singing Drifter.
One instrumental was dropped from the original album, and the four traditionals were added, and there’s plenty to like about this juicy 15-song package. It’s only Gray’s voice and that slide guitar that lacks technical virtuosity, but it’s made up for with pure, raw power and emotion. His signature tune was “John Henry”, the longest and most engaging song of the group, and it shows that one of the requirements of being a good blues artist is the ability to tell a good story which he does. Gray does an excellent version of “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and the traditional “Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor” features some killer slide work. His voice shows a playful register at the start of “Those Old-Fashioned Alley Blues”. Speaking of that, his voice is clear, crisp and forceful when it needs to be.
Blues fans looking for a treasure will certainly find one here with The Singing Drifter. Blind Arvella Gray is the Chicago version of Fat Possum artists such as Asie Payton and Charles Caldwell: they leave just enough material to make you wonder what might have been if they lived longer, but you’re thankful that they left some sort of legacy, because some is always better than none. This album is pure blues for pure blues fans, and even 25 years later is better than never.