By Bruce Sylvester
December gets a Christmas blues. Four unillustrated bonus tracks include two rarities on OKeh by Mary Willis and buoyant Piedmont guitarist Blind Willie McTell found on no McTell reissue.
Prepared from collectors’ 78s by Richard Nevins (who helmed Yazoo Records), the disc’s rare tracks occasionally are scratchy, but serious blues historians will accept this. The ads’ bold drawings clearly influenced vintage-blues-loving cartoonist R. Crumb. For more information, call (800) 955-1326 (U.S.A. only) or (541) 476-1326 (outside U.S.).
Among black-owned labels, Vee-Jay never established a distinct sound like Motown, though in its 1953-66 lifetime, it encapsulated Midwestern black music, with blues (John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Walter Horton, Elmore James), doo-wop (The Spaniels and El Dorados) and R&B (Betty Everett, the Iceman Jerry Butler). The fervent Staple Singers and Swan Silvertones embodied gospel’s influence on rock.
With four CDs and 85 tracks, the admirably annotated and illustrated Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection (Shout! Factory) presents the defunct label in all its sepia glory with both hits (Reed’s “Ain’t That Loving You Baby,” Gene Chandler’s “Duke Of Earl”) and wonderful obscurities (Sheriff & The Ravels’ “Shombalor”).
Reed, who’s well represented with seven tracks, was plagued by illiteracy and a short memory — not to mention alcoholism and epilepsy — so he kept his wife, Mary, (the honoree of “Honest I Do”) beside him in the studio to whisper his lines in his ear before he sang them. As for Vee-Jay’s notable white acts, there’s only “Sherry” from The Four Seasons and no early Beatles. The track list says Hank Ballard’s “The Twist” is here, though it isn’t.
But, yes, that’s Jimi Hendrix backing Little Richard on the box’s incendiary finale. By the way, Shout! Factory’s Vee-Jay reissue marathon also includes individually available, 16-to-18-cut The Best Of The Vee-Jay Years CDs by Reed, The Staples, Butler and The Dells.
As for a Reed tribute, Omar Kent Dykes (of Omar & The Howlers) and Jimmie Vaughan’s On The Jimmy Reed Highway (Ruf) has way more drive than Reed’s comparatively low-key originals (“Bright Lights Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me To Do”). Dykes and guest Lou Ann Barton’s jiving call-and-response “Good Lover” is especially charming. Delbert McClinton and Reed’s Vee-Jay label mate, harp man Horton, also help on this good-time cruise.
Recalling eras before mass media homogenized our culture, the 15-track Down Home Saturday Night (Smithsonian Folkways) offers pianist Memphis Slim’s boogie-woogie, The Texas Playboys’ western swing and Boozoo Chavis’ accordion-sparked zydeco, as well as blues, bluegrass, Cajun and dance-oriented conjunto from the real McCoys of indigenous American music.
John Sebastian and the J-Band with Geoff Muldaur buoyantly revive Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ (and then The Grateful Dead’s) “Minglewood Blues” on this sampler’s jovial foray to Texas dance halls, Chicago house parties and southwestern Louisiana fais-do-dos. Here are the endangered species of American roots music.
Bluesman John Hammond (son of Columbia’s legendary talent scout John Hammond) waited until his reputation was well established before joining his dad’s label for Source Point (1971) and I’m Satisfied (‘72) — now combined onto a 77-minute CD by reissue maven Raven Records.
Taut, with gritty Chicago blues (Willie Dixon’s funkified “Mellow Down Easy,” Muddy Waters’ macabre “She Moves Me”), Source Point shows how full a sound just voice, vintage resonator guitar, harp, bass and drums can yield.
Producer Delaney Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie) penned half the tracks on I’m Satisfied, the more heavily produced but lesser album. Two Chicago-rooted bonus tracks come from Hammond’s 1973 Triumvirate with Mike Bloomfield and Dr. John.
As son of ‘60s folk bluesman Leon Bibb and nephew of Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis, Eric Bibb, too, has a pedigree. With only voice, acoustic guitar and bass, An Evening With Eric Bibb (MC) has quiet strength as he digs into the gospel canon (“I Heard The Angels Singing,” an upbeat “Lonesome Valley”), his own compositions and the bleak work song “No More Cane On The Brazos.” This disc captures the dignity of the blues.