[16 October 2006]
Delmark became a treasure chest of American culture very early in the company’s now fifty-plus years of activity. Following the precedent of the company’s major supporter, the Chicago jazz doctor John Steiner, Delmark’s proprietor, Bob Koester, has been acquiring the archives of buried labels and gradually getting things issued, some for the first time. The two sets on this split-LP date from 1977. The blues recording producer Ralph Bass got together with the proprietor of a Miami label and taped a series of current musicians, apparently with the intention to give each leader an album of his own. While the full-lengths never panned out, with the addition of an extra track on which the late great blues drummer Fred Below (1926-1988) sings what was his party piece on live gigs, there’s a whole CD of good playing time.
Magic Slim was an affectionate joke of a nickname. If I ever knew, I can’t remember how Sam Maghett came to be called ‘Magic Sam’, but when Sam’s cousin, Morris Holt, sat in with him, Sam called him Magic Slim. How could he not keep the name up? After having essayed a blend of pop and blues, Sam had made an impact as a member of the 1969 blues package to Europe. He was only just becoming known when, within the course of a month, he, Earl Hooker, and Otis Spann all went up to Heaven as thirty-somethings. How could the blues (feelings, morale) die when blues music could sustain such a sudden, shocking multiple loss?
But, to borrow from another musician whose nickname shares the same second half, nowadays Slim’s got his thing goin’ on. You can compare what he does today with these very accomplished performances with two of his brothers in the backing guitar, bass, and drums trio.
The CD’s title is taken from the Jimmy Rogers song with which Slim’s set opens, and without being the apotheosis of laid-backness that Rogers was, Slim delivers the vocal well. The Muddy Waters roarer “Just to Be with You” is delivered more in B.B. King style, but with brotherly support it’s very much his own thing. The accompaniment beds in beautifully, a first guitar solo in a style more traditional than King underlines the more vulnerable and plaintive rendition of the lyric. The same qualities are present on Slim’s own “She Is Mine”, on which he solos at some length, maintaining a pre-King guitar style. The rhythm support is the sort of regular strumming more commonly found supporting a less traditional style. It stimulates Slim to some very inventive negotiations with rhythm, where a lesser player would deliver something much less interesting, more ironed out.
“Strange Things Happen” does have numerous Jimmy Reed characteristics, but with a lilt and lift Reed never attempted. The two-generation guitar interplay continues on William Cole’s “Cummins Prison Farm” with lighter-voiced delivery of the lyric, while “Soul Blues” takes a somewhat similar approach in the solo guitar part of an instrumental with a Jimmy Reed sort of bass guitar rhythm part. How unusual to hear a blues guitarist who has already shown the fingers he has, albeit serving musical ends, delivering the very opposite of a technical display, with pauses and passages of few notes, introverted and meditative.
This is my month for inventive performances of Muddy Waters songs, as “Just to Be with You” has a shouted vocal, not all that loud a one, entirely without the Waters swagger. There’s real sensitivity in the accompaniment, and vibrato-heavy string-bending before the guitar solo turns quiet. This is the love song of a quiet, none-too-articulate persona. The studio fade is a not-inapt ending
Also represented by some instrumentals centred on his guitar-playing, Joe Carter left us some time back and seems to have disappeared from the ken of blues fans anywhere. He made a very few records between 1970 and this date, but this seems to have been the last one, recorded in 1977 with the band from a club near his house, that he sat in with many a night. As occasionally on these gigs, they were joined on the date by Sunnyland Slim on piano, a great player of (not that great a variety of) blues, who here is at once sent into different musical strategies because the other accompanists turn the background into something of a featherbed. It swings, Fred Below makes sure of this on drums, and the playing’s energetic but unstressed.
Jim O’Neal’s 1977 sleevenotes, like the albums not published before, are included in this set after an updating preface. He mentions that Carter had come from Georgia (where he was born in 1927) with something of a country repertoire. As can be seen and heard here, O’Neal claims that Carter was besotted with the music of Elmore James. But he hadn’t the voice and he hadn’t the band with the capacity for metronomic precision. There’s rhythm guitar work combining various blues and jazz influences, a bassist and drummer—and Sunnyland Slim doing runs, rolls, and trills, and even frills, with considerable freedom of tempo. There’s a surge in the band rather than the steady beat James was usually recorded with.
“Anna Lee” (Carter sings “Annie”) is slow and relaxed and, rather than Elmore on the edge of overheatedness (one of his selling points in a market anticipating Otis Redding), the guitar edges into the Hawaiian. The guitar intro to “Sweet Home Chicago” is in more King-ish style. Apart from some trademark phrases, Slim’s playing fills out everywhere just as Otis Spann did in the Muddy Waters band of the 1960s. Since one of his best early recordings is an attempted emulation of Brother Montgomery, I wish Slim had been prodded to do more versions of others, and introduce more variety into his repertoire, but ultimately he was never being able to sound like anybody but himself. Spann had already been dead seven years by the date of this session, but Slim delivers some of his band licks. I see there is more by the same band under Sunnyland’s name on Delmark. This I’ve not heard.
Freddie Below introduces his party piece “a one, a two, you know what to do”, and it’s fun with Lacy Gibson taking a nice guitar solo, Willie the bassist also soloing, while Sunnyland Slim pulls out his few Basie-isms. Below’s pleasant voice slides a little further from its not-exactly-centred pitching over the shuffle beat in some scat choruses. Then there’s an instrumental guitar lead alternating between Carter and lacy Gibson, the latter supporting Sunnyland’s much-better-than-rock’n'roll piano, ‘til Carter takes over with his slide: dance music.
If the rest of the band know Elmore’s record of “Stormy Monday” as well as Carter and Sunnyland, and I now realise I do, they don’t let on. Accident and inspiration intervene as they often have to do on a longer performance, and as they also do on “Bobby’s Rock”, which dances along at a tempo more usually essayed in cowboy music. Rather a fun set of effects of an Elmore James obsession, fourteen years after James’s fatal coronary, and much to be preferred to more machined things one encounters these days fresh from whatever presses CDs come not-so-hot off of. This is a glimpse into a bit of the old days, but since options for comparative reference in 2006 are problematic, I refuse to call these old days either bad or good. Simply heartwarming.