The First Time I Met The Blues
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
“If you want to buy that leather coat from Sears, or all those records, you’ll need to get a job.”
-Theodore Wirths (my father) circa 1966
Before Rolling Stone, there was a music magazine called Hit Parader. In November of 1966 they reviewed Elektra EKL-294. On the cover were a seedy looking bunch of guys in front of an herb shop in Chicago. It was one of those November 22, 1963 moments; nearly forty years later I can still picture sitting at my desk surrounded by my swimming ribbons.
Bah Dah Dah-Dot-Dot
When Paul Butterfield, playing his upside-down Hohner, tore into “Born In Chicago,” my life, in the words of Keith Richards, went from black and white to technicolor.
Less than six months later, I was shopping Empire Music (the same one where I met a harmonica player named Mark in 1974) in Bethesda, Maryland, and found a compilation titled:
The Blues, Vol.2. (mono)
It stayed in my Philco four-speed record player for a month.
On Sunday, July 5, 2012, a fifty-seven-year-old man with a bionic knee and recurring kidney stones downloaded, along with a couple of bonus cuts, the 24-bit remastered version of that album. He wanted to see if these songs still had that effect.
Unlike “oldies,” those goofy songs from that era that reminded him of first boy/girl parties (“Green Grass” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys), The Blues Vol.2 was a doorway to a new world.
If you haven’t gone back and pulled out your old vinyl treasures, or the re-mastered versions of them, may I suggest you do so.
Realize the effect they’ve had on your life.
Remember all the NPR Blues shows you’ve listened to and supported.
How about all the bar shows you drove four hours to go see, or groups like The Nighthawks that turned you on to this music thirty years ago?
Stop for a minute and vibe on the profound story you hold in your hands.
This is America at it’s best.
Chess Records: A combination of two immigrant groups, Polish Jews escaping the pograms of Joseph Stalin and Southern Blacks escaping the equally heinous realities of Jim Crow, thrown together in a strange and scary Midwestern city, they combine their talents to make a few bucks, and proceed to change history.
This isn’t all of the songs on the album, just the ones I played no less than five times each in the past three days.
“Thirty Days” – Chuck Berry
A hair stylist from St. Louis who had begun working with the Johnny Jones Trio. Chuck Berry sensed that this music they called “rock ‘n’ roll” needed some new songs. He wrote songs about teenage problems, transcending race and social class.
“Thirty Days” demonstrates his ability to, as songwriters call it, go from small to large. If the gypsy woman and the local judicial system can’t get his girlfriend back, he’s more than happy to take his problem to an international level.
“They don’t give me no con-so-lation, I’m gonna take it to the U-nited-Nations.”
Here, in the era of nonsensical songs like “Shh-Boom,” you have a I-V (ask your musician friend) boom-chuck Hillbilly beat sung by a black artist wryly suggesting the possible need of U.N. intervention. Social irony in the vein of “Jordan For President” or “Choo-Choo Cha-Boogie.”
“Evil” – Howlin’ Wolf
Me: “Sunnyland, you worked with everyone, who was your favorite singer?”
David Letterman to Sam Phillips (founder of Sun Records, the man who discovered Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Junior Parker, et al.)
“Who was your favorite artist?”
“Chester Burnett, also known as The Howlin’ Wolf.”
Ten seconds into the song, Wolf stretches the word.
“That’s eeeeeevil, evil is goin’ on.”
Listening to the remastered tracks, much like the Patsy Cline sessions, you hear the call and response of his voice and the instruments:
Wolf sings a line, the piano player answers him.
He sings another line, the harmonica answers.
The secret handshake of preacher and congregation.
“Got My Mojo Workin’” – Muddy Waters (From the 1959 Newport Folk Festival)
Emcee: “Muddy Waters. (You introduce the first number).”
Four minutes later, the normally sedate Newport Folk Festival is on the verge of a riot.
Fact: The studio version of this song is much tamer and does not feature the call and response of “Got My Mojo Workin’” live.
Fact: Muddy did not write this song, nor perform the original version. It was written by Preston Hubbard and was originally performed by Anne Cole.
However, the “Newport” version will forever be the definitive one.
It changed popular music.
This recording would lead to international fame for Muddy and inspire young Brits named Keith and Eric to quit school and lock themselves in their bedrooms for weeks, attempting to master this music.
“I’m A Man” – Bo Diddley
When he first showed up at their studios, the Chess brothers thought Bo to be more than a little bit strange. However, every time he plugged in his guitar, the former violinist took music back to it’s most basic and primitive.
Not sure which came first, “Mannish Boy” by Muddy or “I’m A Man” by Bo Diddley, but who cares.
Listening to it carefully one realizes the importance of Jerome Green on the maracas.
“Blues With a Feeling” – Little Walter
According to Sunnyland Slim and everyone that crossed his path Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs was, at best, a loose cannon. Equal parts liability and genius, he redefined the harmonica and how it was played. There are other greats, but he was THE master of post-war harmonica.
Walter was a lonely, troubled young man, and his demons came to life with every solo. If you call yourself a blues fan, this is mandatory required listening.
“It Ain’t No Secret” – Jimmy Witherspoon
A completely different style of Blues.
Jimmy Witherspoon was the bridge between Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner.
A class act all the way.
The song was written by a country/western singer, Stuart Hamblin, better known for “This Ole’ House.”
“So Many Roads” – Otis Rush
One of those “world stands still” moments. There’s something about Rush’s voice that makes the hair stand up in several different locales of my aging anatomy. If you think I’m being a bit overenthusiastic, roll up your sleeves and observe the reaction of your own follicles while listening to what he does with the word “Roooooooads.”
Interesting to hear the use of horns, in an obvious attempt to appeal to the more commercial R&B styles of the day.
Does it ever.
“Sugar Mama” – John Lee Hooker
It’s John Lee Hooker.
“Talk To Me Baby” – Elmore James
Elmore James sounds like he gargled with barbed wire and had a few drinks before Leonard Chess called “Take one.”
There’s a world weariness and a beauty to that voice that makes you want to keep turning up the volume.
The drum fill on the intro sounds like gunshots.
Elmore James phrases like Patsy Cline.
It’s that growl, although it’s more pronounced on his slow songs like “The Sky is Crying,” it’s that same damn growl. It’s the a-a-a-a–a-hh mannerism. In this case, it sets up the tag line of the verse with an “oh well” feel.
His influence on modern guitar players begins with:
Duane Allman and George Thorougood and Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton.
Actually, anyone, anywhere that tunes the guitar to an open “D” and pulls out a slide owes a debt to Mr. James.
“Help Me” – Sonny Boy Williamson
By all accounts, Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson II, was not known to be a real pleasant guy. I guess that’s why his songs always have a dark, menacing tone to them. Given that, his harmonica style is instantly recognizable and sits right next to Little Walter’s in the influence department.
The Hammond B-3 adds even more edge to the song.
“When I walk, you walk with me. When I talk you talk to me.”
“Bring It On Home” by Led Somebody “borrowed” from this composition.
“Ten Years Ago” – Buddy Guy
Hard to believe it, but once upon a time Buddy Guy was a virtual unknown from Mississippi. It was songs like this that made him … Buddy Guy.
In the forty-odd years since I bought this album, I have accumulated what most folks would consider a pretty sizable blues collection.
This is the one that began a lifelong quest/addiction/obsession.
It is the soundtrack of my life.
By today’s standards, this short, thirty-one-minute album would probably end up in the budget section, however, looking at the track list two facts jump out:
- These songs represent blues at it’s absolute, lightnin’-in-the-bottle finest. Every single one of these songs is a five-star essential classic.
-They were all on one label.
Repeat: One, Uno, O-N-E f—cking label.
The label was not Cadillac Records, the name was Chess Records.
It’s exhausting to even begin to try and list the artists, who influenced the artists, who were influenced by the artists, on this single record.
Back when I bought The Blues Vol. 2, record stores kept blues in a small section, in between Jazz and Gospel.
Right where it belongs.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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