Various Artists: Savoy Blues 1944-94

Robert R. Calder

Various Artists

Savoy Blues 1944-94

Label: Savoy Jazz
US Release Date: 2003-09-23

It says "50 years of Savoy Blues" at the beginning of some shabby notes that are not short on equal falsehoods. There was indeed a legend that Joe Glaser (I correct Billy Vera's spelling) hired Hot Lips Page around 1940 to "stifle" potential competition to Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was having such lip trouble at the time, Glaser most likely just wanted a possible replacement. Lips was magnificent, but he was hardly Armstrong. Billy Vera, producer (whatever that means) and below standard editor and annotator of this three-CD set in the Savoy Jazz series tells us that Lips "was a lively, engaging performer and a powerful trumpet soloist in a day when the line between blues and jazz was a blurry one". Hogwash! What day would that be?

Lips Page came up in Kansas City, and there (and in few other places) some of the music produced really was jazz with more intense blues than was elsewhere usual; and blues which remained intense despite how much jazz was in it. Big Joe Turner could record with the Elmore James band one time without the least stylistic discrepancy. He also recorded with some very Europeanly sophisticated jazzmen, as did Lips Page. This was purely a regional factor, or is Vera trying to say Buck Clayton could have played with Tommy McClennan, or Big Joe Williams? Kansas City was a place and not a "day", and influence from or through there had a lot to do with the subsequent sub-genre of Rhythm & Blues. Jazz and blues had no single common musical origin.

Lips is featured at the beginning of a fairly clumsy selection of very good 1940s jazz-blues from a Savoy catalog handled infinitely better by previous reissues. Miss Rhapsody (Viola Wells) sings on her title in a 1920s style, but instead of providing even minimal details of personnel, gossipy Vera tells us that Miss Rhapsody's band was led by the brother of the drummer Cozy Cole. Rueben Cole, yes: but what, Mr. Vera, did the guy play?

Certainly out of place is Billy Eckstine's "All I Sing Is Blues", a pop-song whose only reference to "the blues" is metaphorical. Eckstine sang more than blues. Another two Eckstine titles do show he could be a very effective blues shouter on the general Joe Turner sort of model, notwithstanding his polished delivery.

Quite what a down homey duet between Brownie McGhee and Jack Dupree (the latter at his very best on piano) is doing on a first CD otherwise made up entirely of jump music? Dare one suggest that Billy Vera might have cloth ears, as the English say? Or did the wrong McGhee title go on CD1, since McGhee appears guitarless in a jump band setting on CD2, incongruously added among an unadventurous selection of John Lee Hooker items. You might be interested to hear that with his longtime partner Sonny Terry McGhee appeared on Broadway in Finian's Rainbow and that they played for folkies and people Billy Vera calls "Socialists" (etc., etc.), but who's the tenor player on his jump blues side? Hooker, we are told, "shows up on this set both at the beginning of his long career, when he was working exclusively for blue collar blacks, and in his later period, when his fan base consisted of young white kids." We are further informed that "Interestingly, the changes in his approach were only minor". This isn't true, since first there is quite a change in style. Ludicrously, the later items aren't from anything like a "later period", unless the sleeve details are wrong and the subsequent items don't come simply from the late nineteen fifties, by which time Hooker's fan base still wasn't white kids, young or old.

12-bar R&B performances take up much of the rest of CD 2, 1948-'52, and since one of the first blues albums I ever bought was an ungenerously filled vinyl disc with twelve items from the Savoy list from that period or a little later I had been expecting to hear some old friends. Perhaps the titles leased long ago by the genuinely visionary Arnold Caplin for his Biograph label, many of them never issued by Savoy, were not available? This excuse for a selection needs all the excuses it can get. And we have had nothing of Cousin Joe, who recorded some splendid things for Savoy! I could give a list, but surely somebody else was paid to do research?

CD 3 takes us to 1957, Nappy Brown and Big Maybelle and two titles from a curious album distinguished by the guitar of M.T. Murphy (whom B. Vera does not even mention) and on which a couple of saxophonists manage to drown out the cheap effects and bum notes of Memphis Slim's flashy piano. 1961 that was, and we leap suddenly to 1970-1973, with an odd mixture of tracks from Eddie Kirkland of which "When I First Started Hoboing" is outstanding. Then there's Robert Lockwood, with a brilliant "Forever on My Mind" on the same tune as Brother Montgomery's "I Keep on Drinking". These are from the Trix catalogue, presumably available to Savoy but hardly accessed. There's one heck of a lot more on Trix more detailed complaints could publicise free.

From the 1980s there is nothing, zero, but hollowness is something this presentation lets one get used to. There are two nice enough Charles Brown items from 1992 and the Muse label, representing years 1972-94: 11 years apiece? This set is just a jumble and if you want to hear the musicians, there are better compilations.

I deplore the failure to explore in any meaningful sense the Savoy catalogue, to consider a CD of some of the wonderful down-home blues set down long ago. There could have been a set with even more of the at times brilliant 1940s material (most of which came out decently presented in ordered selections on vinyl not in bargain standard jumbles like this). LaVern Baker recorded as Little Miss Sharecropper and she was the niece of Memphis Minnie? I'll tell you something more interesting, Memphis Minnie and Sunnyland Slim titles were owned by Savoy years ago; and there's not one here!

Fifty years? And all that gossip about what happened when Big Maybelle took her shoes off onstage... Presumably a balanced programme?





Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.