He died at 39 in 1971 from a brain tumor but Arkansas vocalist/blues-harp man Little Junior Parker left a two-decade legacy of great music for Memphis label Sun and Houston label Duke. Despite severe financial problems, he demanded his horn section go on the road with him. Influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), he never liked the heavy amplification that Little Walter used, preferring to blow straight into his vocal microphone. He wrote and recorded “Mystery Train” before Elvis got his hands on it. He even had the balls to record three Beatles songs towards the end of his life. So why didn’t he cash in on the late ‘60s blues-rock boom like most of his peers? Maybe he was a little too slick, a little too commercially soulful, “a proud product of the chitlin’ circuit,” as Bill Dahl’s insightful liner notes says. Rocks (Germany’s Bear Family Productions) is all you’ll ever need when it comes to Al Green’s cousin (Rev. Green even dedicates “Take Me To The River” to him in his spoken-word intro to that mega-hit). Yeah, he rocked, alright: 31 songs in just under 80 minutes, this primer blew me away. His voice, his harp, his band, his total oeuvre, man, Little Junior Parker had it all.
Ain’t Gonna Hush and Make Some Good Girls Bad (Koko Mojo Records) is yet another amazing collection of ‘50s and ‘60s blues and rhythm from female belters like Big Mama Thornton, Little Esther, Etta James, Big Maybelle (who did “Hound Dog” before Elvis), Ann Cole (who did “Got My Mojo Workin’” before Muddy), Little Miss Jessie, Little Miss Janice (whose “Scarred Knees” is one of the highlights), Annisteen Allen (who did “Fujiyama Mama” before Wanda Jackson) and 20 more. The sound is sterling, the emotion divine. Other highlights include “I’m Just A Woman” by Pauline Rogers, “Hambone” by Mamie Jenkins, “Drill Daddy Drill” by Dorothy Ellis, “Scorched” by Varetta Dillard, “My Man Rock-Head” by Eloise Carter, “He’s The One That Rings My Bell” by Sherri Taylor, “I Thought I Told You Not To Tell Them” by Marie Knight and “Rockin’ Bed” by Valerie Carr. It all ends with Marylyn Scott’s “Beer Bottle Boogie.” It doesn’t get much better than this.
Back in the days when we used to trip and go camping, we’d build a big fire, pass the pipe around, break out the acoustic guitars and howl at the moon. That’s what The Game (Little Pig Records) by Paul Pigats reminds me of. It actually goes back even further to the days when men would huddle in the dank environs of empty box cars idling on train tracks passing the bottle around. This second installment of his “Boxcar Campfire” trilogy has him singing as if his life depended on it, strumming the old acoustic and blowing some mighty fine blues-harp on his own instant classics like “Roll All Night,” “Treat Your Papa Right” and “You Gotta Use.” Backed only by the voice and percussion of Marc L’Esperance, Pigats also turns Johnny Cash’s 1962 “Ring Of Fire” into a Mississippi Delta blues and Will Kimbrough’s 2002 “Piece Of Work” into an anthem for the disenfranchised. His more well-known alter-ego, Cousin Harley, has been put aside here to continue what he started ten years ago in 2009. I’m totally looking forward to the third and final volume and hope I don’t have to wait until 2029.
North Carolina blues-man Brandon Santini has won plenty of blues awards, especially since he moved to Memphis 16 years ago and started playing all those blues clubs on Beale Street, impressing the locals and the tourists with his fiery harmonica and scorched-earth vocals. His obvious next step was to record a blues-rock album that really rocked. The Longshot (American Showplace Music) is just such an album. It’s the result of his averaging 250 shows a year internationally. Complete with electric, acoustic and slide guitars, a two-headed skin-tight drum’n’bass monster, the percolating percussion of bongos, congas, tambourine, shaker and handclaps plus backing vocals and, most profoundly, John Ginty’s expressive organ, piano and vibes. Santini co-produced and wrote 10 of 11. The sole cover is a doozy: Willie Dixon’s 1954 foreboding “Evil (Is Going On),” a song first sung by Howlin’ Wolf with an air of desperation, especially on the lines “long way from home/can’t sleep at all/you know another mule is kickin’ in your stall.” To his everlasting credit, Santini reaches that state of depraved anxiety.
I’ve seen New Orleans legend Marcia Ball twice and both times her guitarist, Mighty Mike Schermer, blew me away. On Bad Tattoo (Finedog/VizzTone), his seventh solo album, he co-produced and wrote or co-wrote all 12 blistering tracks for his stinging lead guitar and roughhouse vocals. Opener “She Won’t Be Coming Back” has some real pumping horns, the kind that get you up out of your seat, while extra added percussion carries “Lover’s Hall Of Fame” and that roller-rink Farfissa organ sound spills out all over “How Much Longer.” Rick Estrin blows some mighty fine blues-harp on “Stop Looking For Love” and it all ends with Austin Delone’s pounding electric piano on “Up All Night.” Wholeheartedly Recommended.
It’s been a long strange trip for singer/songwriter/blues-harpist Tim Gartland. Satisfied (Taste Good Music) will leave you exactly that. What a cast of cats from different bands! Produced by Kevin McKendree of Delbert McClinton’s band, it features keyboardist Tom West from Duke Robillard, drummer Jack Bruno from Tina Turner, bassist Steve Mackey (also from Delbert) and guitarist Tom Britt from Vince Gill. Gartland wrote all 10, produced and blows his brains out on harmonica. His lyrics go way beyond the usual feel-good romp of a solid blues band. In “Drinking For Two,” he sings, “she left the bar just like a shooting star/she broke it off and it’s going to leave a scar/So Mr. Bartender, I need me some elbow room/I’m a party of one but I’m drinkin’ for two.” In “Don’t Make More Trouble,” he advises, “when the problems come/don’t reach for the gun.” Raised in Ohio, he found his blues groove in Chicago, moved to Boston in ’89 where he became a New England hot shot, wrote a book (The Talking Harmonica), released his Looking Into The Sun debut album in 2011, followed it up with Million Stars in 2014, moved to Nashville in 2015, hit the blues charts in 2017 with If You Want A Good Woman and has now made his masterpiece. Tough to pick a highlight as all 10 are great but when he asks that musical question, “Why Does The Room Begin To Sway,” it hits home hard.