Music

Detroit Jr.: Blues on the Internet

Robert R. Calder

A venerable blues piano stylist with a classic Chicago bluesband lineup including some younger veterans, decent songs of his own and an enduring integrity in performance.


Detroit Jr.

Blues on the Internet

Label: Delmark
US Release Date: 2004-12-14
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Detroit Junior is in his early seventies, a little younger than Otis Spann or Vern Harrison (Detroit's Boogie Woogie Red) would have been if they were still among us. Spann was by far the best blues pianist of his generation, Harrison maybe never did get properly systematically recorded, and all three were about twenty years younger than the major blues pianists they grew up beside, Little Brother Montgomery, Big Maceo and Eddie Boyd. Detroit (as the notes call him) was born Emery Williams Jr., and owes his nom-de-disque not to any substantial association with the Motor City but the coinage of someone looking for a name to put on the label of one of his early recordings.

He grew up hearing blues and (approximately) R&B on the radio: Sonny Boy Williamson II from Memphis, from New Orleans Fats Domino, and presumably the Texan-Californian smoothie Charles Brown, to whom he dedicates one song on the present album. He declares before singing that he's going to perform in Brown's style, but achieves no very close approximation to that.

His playing confirms the report that he received piano tutoring from the now departed veteran Eddie Boyd (born 1914), and he comes astonishingly close to Boyd's style -- which really came out of Memphis (as a close musical cousin of Booker T. Laury), and was influenced or northernised by later acquaintance with Big Maceo Merriweather. Boyd accompanied Maceo on a few titles after the latter was maimed by a stroke, and later had a 1950s career which is well preserved on CD (one or another of a couple of CDs selected from his 1950s recordings often turn up cheaply on internet auction).

Boyd's piano had a less and less prominent part in his recordings as the 1950s proceeded, and the music even regressed: the genre ceased in fact to be blues, and became novelty or silly pop. In the late 1960s Boyd moved to Europe, though his recordings there weren't supervised in a way that would have induced him to do what he had been doing around 1950 (which some white blues pianists today would give a left leg to be able to manage).

Junior's neither a major player, nor in the first flush of boyhood. Delmark's notes report that his work as Howlin' Wolf's pianist (he was in Wolf's last band till that giant died in 1976) was taped live in Europe -- and there's a lower-sound-quality CD available now from the admirable Austrian label Wolf.

Detroit's presented here in a band setting -- the notes give adequate clues to other recordings he's made -- and it's possible that he isn't a sufficiently varied solo performer to turn up otherwise (I don't know whether any other recordings feature him more nearly alone).

The band here is generally guitar, bass and drums with Detroit's piano, a succession of guitarists adding variety of style, and a horn or two -- sometimes ensemble with the band, and sometimes just playing solos like in a jazz performance or in the sort of Muddy Waters Blues Band gig recording where everybody gets a go. Sonny Cohn is an interesting name on trumpet, for when he played in Count Basie's band his boss used to tell him to listen to the Joe Smith, a cornetist whose short life was contemporary with Bix Beiderbecke's and whose magical lyricism distinguished Bessie Smith recordings. Now Cohn is himself a soloist on a blues album, with a roughish sound and a halting style of phrasing.

Like Bessie's, Junior's repertoire extends into pop and novelty items, which were also the basis of many R&B repertoires and had found their way into the last Chess label blues dates before the white market for blues materialized. After the opening "Call My Job", a brisk piano-led blues-band number with solos but no band-work by the horns, there's a gentle rocking novelty number. With socking drums and the very modern blues guitar of Lurrie Bell, "Weak Spot" is a song like many from bluesmen forty years ago, Blues in every respect save having a twelve bar structure. Detroit's very competent piano comes out in solo from the ensemble, as it does again in "Money Crazy", which features Jimmy Dawkins on guitar and in a solo, and Eric Schneider soloing on tenor with riffing horns riding out the thing behind Detroit's piano. His left hand is secure.

"Less Violence. More Love" is pretty well a Caribbean performance, with gospel affiliations not least in the morality of the lyrics (all but one of these songs is Detroit's own). There's more sanctified feeling and bar structure in the Charles Brown tribute "Love No One But You", which has R&B tenor and Cohn's trumpet for solos. "Rockin' After Midnight" goes into a shuffle beat, and antiquarians will recognize the reference when I say this starts out sounding like Bill Haley. There's a boogie piano chorus and guitar and tenor solos.

Then we're back fifty years in "Somebody Better Do Something", with Maurice John Vaughan on guitar (he's on seven of the fifteen performances) taking a very fine solo -- like the trumpet and tenor ones -- on the sort of song older collectors may have hoped for when buying an Eddie Boyd single unheard. The next track is another straight blues band performance with lashing right hand, and then there's the downright Jamaican-flavoured ska of "When it Comes to Your Love".

"Blues on the Internet" isn't just topical, it's very decent, with the Boydian piano and no brass other than in solos. Cohn plays well, followed by guitar and then I think an alto saxophone. "Messin' with the Kid" is of course a Muddy Waters feature, the band performance here sounding like one of those times Otis Spann played in Buddy Guy's recording band. "Man Around the House" is the same sort of thing, maybe a little nearer the sound of an early Otis Rush studio band. It's a nice combination of styles not too often accomplished. "Party All Night Long" is a gentle rocker -- Detroit doesn't have the strongest of voices these days, but who needs loud and raucous?

There's an audio interview with him, as well as a video track and detailed instructions as to what you should do if your computer can't play this straight off. I tried it on a borrowed machine well upmarket from my usual standby. I've not seen it yet, but there's enough music to let that short be called a bonus.

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