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Lost, damaged discs are the regretful reality of old blues 78s

Discover Jabo Williams, the greatest blues pianist you’ve probably never heard — and whose voice you probably never will. Lost and damaged discs are the regretful reality of old blues 78s.

By Susan Sliwicki

It’s no surprise that little is known about piano-playing bluesman Jabo Williams: no known photos, no confirmed dates or locations of his birth or death (though some speculate he was born in Pratt City, Ala., based on references in “Pratt City Blues.”

His anonymity, while regrettable, is a fate that befell many blues artists of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. But what is even worse for Williams is that the incredible musicianship preserved on his records isn’t faring that well, either.

“He’s one of the best blues piano players I’ve ever heard,” said John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “I’m not a huge fan of piano blues; I like the guitar stuff. But I can appreciate good piano playing when I hear it.”

And therein lies the rub. The “hearing” part is awfully tricky for Williams’ vocals on “Ko Ko Mo Blues” parts 1 and 2, which was included on the companion CD to the Blues Images 2011 calendar.

Jabo Williams Ko Ko Mo Blues

“You can hear it, but you can’t make out the words. It’s an exercise in futility listening to it,” Tefteller said. But Williams’ piano playing triumphs over the static, and the advertising artwork created to accompany the record won Tefteller over, so he included it in the calendar. He also decided that although Williams’ recording wasn’t in great shape, it still deserved to be heard.

“There’s exactly two copies in existence, neither of which is basically listenable,” Tefteller said. “I had them both — I own one of them — and we took them into the studio and played them side by side, and they both had roughly the same problems. It was basically toss a coin. We even thought of taking part of one and editing it with part of the other.”

Alas, the damage was just too great for even modern-day editing marvels to repair.

“They were damaged, heavily ground-down 78s. They looked bad, and they sounded bad,” Tefteller said. “But it’s Jabo Williams, who’s a legendary piano player. That’s what stands out, even through the noise and distraction.”

Williams recorded eight sides for Paramount Records at the label’s Grafton, Wis., studio in May 1932. Unfortunately for Williams, his big break had bad timing, as the Paramount label was well on its way to bankruptcy, and the label had cut back on its production and distribution efforts. For collectors, that’s also bad news, as few copies of any of his records survived.

“All his records exist in two or three or one copies,” Tefteller said. “There aren’t any for sale anywhere.”

In addition to Paramount 13127 (“Ko Ko Mo Blues, Parts 1 and 2”), Williams recorded Paramount 13130 (“Polock Blues” b/w “Fat Mama Blues”); Paramount 13136 (“My Woman Blues” b/w “House Lady Blues”) and Paramount 13141 (“Jab’s Blues” b/w “Pratt City Blues).
He predicted a nice-condition 78 of any of Williams’ records would sell for multiple thousands.

While we can’t exactly fully appreciate Williams’ work today, we can enjoy a cousin of sorts. “Ko Ko Mo Blues” served as the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” (a somewhat damaged copy of which recently sold for $3,350, as noted in the January 2012 Market Watch countdown.