A Flip Of the Switch
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about. Sometimes he writes about other things.
A Flip of the Switch
Before Rolling Stone, Creem, Mojo, and magazines with “blues” in the title, there was a publication called Hit Parader.
Hit Parader was the first magazine to take rock music seriously, and give it’s fans credit for having an I.Q. superior to that of the average planaria worm.
I was checking out the review of an album by a group called Rhinoceros. At the time they had an instrumental that all the band were using for a break song called “Apricot Brandy.”
Underneath Rhinoceros, there was a rave review about an album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
To this day, I remember the quote that read,” It swings like mad, and never lets up.”
With the opening bars of “Born In Chicago” that album threw a switch in my circuits that has stayed in the “on” position ever since.
The intensity of the music and the subject matter itself was unlike anything I’d ever heard.
Reading the liner notes, I noticed the mention of artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
A couple of weeks later, I bought an album called The Blues Vol.2.
The Blues Vol. 2 took me to place far beyond that of suburban Washington, D.C. and Top Forty radio.
To a thirteen-year-old Episcopalian there was something cool and forbidden about the world these “blues” artists sang about.
Muddy Waters complained that his “mojo” wasn’t working, John Lee Hooker sang about some girlfriend that apparently had a voracious sweet tooth (“Sugar Mama”), and apparently Chuck Berry had prostate issues (“Wee Wee Hours”).
Blues Part Two
Later that same year, I had the chance to see my first “live” blues.
My mom had taken me to The Smithsonian Folk Festival to meet Jean Ritchie. Jean Ritchie was the godmother of traditional mountain dulcimer, and had also been my mom’s college roommate.
After meeting Ms. Ritchie, I wandered on over to a side stage.
It was packed.
The “blues” stage featured a series of ancient guitar players, all of them from Mississippi, and none of them under the age of seventy.
Although, due to the crappy P.A. system, it was hard to understand what they were saying, the crowd of folk music lovers apparently hung on every muffled syllable and bottle-necked “E” chord.
The last act of the day, representing “modern blues” was the Muddy Waters Band.
By then I had wormed my way up to the front row, directly in front of the upright piano.
The band came on first.
Unlike the previous acts, Muddy had a rhythm section and a piano player.
I couldn’t help but notice that the piano player looked like a good stiff breeze would lift him back to Chicago, indeed Otis Spann was not a well man, as I would find out later that year, in an article written by some young writer named Guralnick.
Anyway, following a warm-up tune by the band, Muddy Waters strolled on stage wearing a maroon satin “Tom Jones” shirt, wrap-around shades, an eight-inch “conk” scraping the lower regions of the ionosphere, and turquoise alligator shoes.
Oh Hell Yes!
I wish I could report that from that moment on, he “owned” the crowd, but instead:
As the band hit the opening bars of “Can’t Lost What You Ain’t Never Had,” the P.A. made a horrible howling noise, and at least half the audience stuck their fingers in their ears while shaking their heads in disapproval at this electrified intrusion upon their “authentic” ethno-musical tradition.
Midway through the first verse, a good two dozen of them, fingers still planted firmly in ear, stood up and walked out.
I kid you not, they walked out on Muddy Waters.
Not just Muddy Waters, but Muddy and Otis Spann.
Fortunately, it didn’t faze Mr. Waters and Co. As far as I was concerned, after listening to Spann turn the piano inside out for the next hour or so, learning “Light My Fire” on the Farfisa organ no longer occupied first place on my list of musical priorities.
As I sat down to write this week and wondered why “Slipped Discs” has become such an important part of my weekly schedule, I realize that it all goes back to Hit Parader.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that write-up was the leaf falling in the forest, the one that indeed flipped the switch.
Thanks to a little two-paragraph review, I spent my allowance on an album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band…
Paul Butterfield led to The Blues Vol. 2.
The Blues Vol.2 led to The James Cotton Blues Band on Verve.
James Cotton led to Muddy Waters at The Smithsonian Folk Life Festival.
Muddy Waters at The Folk Life festival changed everything.
…and that’s why I do this.
If nothing else, maybe some day, thirty years from now, when I’m trying to decide between the stewed carrots or the chicken pot pie in the assisted-living home, the recently appointed director of the President’s Council For Preservation of The Blues will mention that it all began years ago, when some column called “Slipped Discs” flipped that same switch.
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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