New Box Set Gives a Definitive Overview of Chicago's Bea & Baby Records (premiere)

Photo courtesy of Conqueroo

A new definitive set unveils rare sides from Chicago's Bea & Baby Records, ranging from blues to gospel and hip-hop. Hear songs from Andre Williams and Sleepy John Estes with Hammie Nixon.

Cadillac Baby's Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection arrives 19 July via Chicago's Earwig Music Company. Helmed by Earwig owner Michael Frank, the project brings together a host of sides and styles (including gospel and hip-hop) from Bea & Baby's 40-year run (1959-1989).

Frank and Cadillac Baby (born Narvel Eatmon) first met up in the 1970s, not long after the young blues enthusiast had made his way to the Windy City. More than a decade later Frank bumped into the longtime label head and soon began co-producing a young hip-hop artist named Richard Davenport (known as 3D). Before the project could get off the ground, both Cadillac Baby and Davenport passed.

Bea & Baby's renaissance seemed over until Rhino Records announced that it wanted to license the label's "Santa Claus Came Home Drunk" for a Christmas compilation. Frank handled the deal and made a realization. "If I didn't do something about the label," he says, "it was just going to disappear."

With the encouragement of fellow aficionados, Frank bought the label from Cadillac Baby's widow. He then set about rebuilding it. "It became a mission for me," he says, "as an independent label owner and lover of blues, gospel, and all the music that the label represented."

You can get a sense of the full, expansive set via an Andre Williams side, "Please Give Me a Chance" as well as a rare Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon number, "Cadillac Baby, Come Pick Me". Both offer an insight into the label's aesthetic and provide blues lovers with the thrill of hearing elusive, difficult-to-find cuts.

Reflecting on Williams, Frank says, "He was working with labels in Detroit during that period in his life. But he wasn't attached to any one label. He was a producer, songwriter and performing a lot and recorded the song in Chicago. It's a classic vocal from the era."

The Estes and Nixon session was more remarkable, largely for what wasn't known about it. Though rumors of the recordings circulated among blues scholars for decades, there was little to verify it. "It was listed in blues discographies but wasn't issued," Frank recalls. While touring Europe alongside Honeyboy Edwards on the cusp between the 1980s and 1990s, Frank encountered

Blue Horizon label owner Mike Vernon who said he had direct knowledge of the tapes.

" I never got the full story, but Mike had the reel-to-reel tape, he sent it to me. There were no markings on the box, no track sheets. It was the full 14 tracks from that session. There were two tracks that I couldn't figure out who they were. It was on the same tape. There was some comedy on that tape as well. When I heard the track where John mentions Cadillac Baby and he talks back, I knew that that was the session."

The other Sleepy John Estes/Hammie Nixon tracks can be heard as bonus downloads available with the purchase of the box set.

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