Thursday, September 29, 2005


"Elmore James has got nothing on this baby"

Elmore James, Please Find My Baby.
Elmore James, Hawaiian Boogie.

A taste of Mr. James in his prime.

As a child, Elmore James, born in 1918 in Richland, Miss., hammered a strand of broom wire to a cabin wall and taught himself to play what he called "the diddley bow". By the 1930s, he was playing the Southern blues circuit, a journey in which he met Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson. For years, James was known throughout the South as the man who took Johnson's "Dust My Broom" and radicalized it--turning Johnson's original riff "into a heavily amplified banshee wail" (Robert Palmer). James finally recorded "Dust My Broom" in 1951, in his first-ever session.

By '53, he was churning out singles. "Please Find My Baby" is a rip-roaring masterpiece, whose vicious guitar sound would be aped for decades by everyone and their mother--Mike Bloomfield, Led Zeppelin, the Allmans, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc., etc. (Riffs from the actual James recording were dubbed onto Boyd Gilmore's 1952 "All in My Dreams", in a bit of ur-sampling.) James' guitar was recorded loud and raw under primitive conditions in a Jackson, Miss., juke joint--basically, a Modern Records talent scout hooked up a portable Magnacord tape recorder to the bar's PA system.

"Hawaiian Boogie", in which James' slide seems to be not so much imitating a Hawaiian guitar as remaking it in the slide's own image, stalls for a bit while we endure the fairly mediocre solo by tenor saxophonist J.T. Brown, but when James takes over for good, the track cooks.

"Hawaiian" is backed by Johnny Jones (p), Ransom Knowling (b), Odie Payne (d) and J.T. Brown (ts). Recorded in Chicago; released as Flair 1011 in June 1953. "Please Find" features Ike Turner on piano and an unknown rhythm section--it was released as Flair 1022 in December 1953. Both are on the amazing compilation The Sky is Crying.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


duded up for trouble

Chet Atkins, Country Gentleman.
Earl Hooker, Guitar Rag.

All hail the electric guitar! Here are two masters from the second generation of players--the country session man genius Chet Atkins, disciple of Merle Travis, and the blues slide guitar legend Earl Hooker, first cousin to John Lee Hooker and protégé of Robert Nighthawk.

Atkins, born in Luttrell, Tennessee, already has been heard a half-dozen times or more on "Locust St." as he played guitar on seemingly every country session of note from @1948 onward. Atkins played fiddle about as often as he did guitar, but the latter instrument made him immortal. Atkins' playing owes a lot to Travis', but with far more sprightliness to his playing--the way "Country Gentleman" just cleanly hums and jumps along. His style would inspire contemporaries like Carl Perkins, and would be a seminal influence on George Harrison, among others (the first five Beatles LPs are riddled with Harrison's Atkins imitations).

"Gentleman" was recorded in New York on March 20, 1953, with Henry Haynes on rhythm guitar, Kenneth Burns (who gets a solo on mandolin) (under the names Homer and Jethro, these two later became a comedy team) and Charles Grean (bass.) Released as Victor 20-5300. On Guitar Legend. This song led to Gibson creating a guitar in Atkins' honor.

Earl Zebedee Hooker was born in Clarksdale, Miss. in 1930 and moved with his family to Chicago as the Depression worsened. In Chicago, Hooker saw the likes of Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy & Robert Nighthawk--the latter mentored Hooker, who in turn was soon able to perfectly imitate Nighthawk's smooth slide guitar playing. Hooker returned South in the early 1950s, playing with Ike Turner and cutting some sides for Sun Records that Sam Phillips never released. Hooker spent much of the decade constantly touring, providing slide guitar on some epochal records like Muddy Waters' "You Shook Me", and only recording a few one-off singles of his own.

"Guitar Rag," possibly recorded in July 1953, is a marvelous display of Hooker's style, though the mix oddly highlights a dire performance on bass by some incompetent who history has blessed with anonymity (check out the massive screw-up around :45 into the track). On Two Bugs and a Roach.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Rosemary Clooney, Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me.
Kay Starr, Wheel of Fortune.

Popular music of the early 1950s, if it is considered at all today, is remembered mainly as a foil for rock and roll; described in turns as dreary, confectionery, cloying and irritating, pop hits of the early fifties have long been sloughed off into oblivion, returning only once in a while in muzak garb on "easy listening" radio stations or whistled by a grandmother in the kitchen.

Certainly, a good deal of it was dreck: Carleton Carpenter & Debbie Reynolds singing “Aba Daba Honeymoon”; Reynolds’ future husband Eddie Fisher inflicting a host of wretched songs upon the airwaves, like “Lady Of Spain”; Patti Page’s “How Much is that Doggie in the Window”, which has become over the years the embodiment of the insipid type of music rock & roll allegedly destroyed.

Yet there was something else to these songs besides their grandiose melodies-- a shared sense of melancholy, a taste for desperate escapism, sometimes undercut by a sort of domestic stoicism. In great part these were songs for women, often performed by women, and whenever such songs are prominent, the period gets written off by (mostly male) writers of future generations as being weak, sappy and requiring rock & roll demolition. The same critical revision happened to the early '60s, when the girl groups ran the show (i.e., rock & roll had "died" and needed resuscitation by the Beatles); it likely is underway right now with regards to the late 1990s, when the charts were dominated by boy bands and former Mouseketeers, crafting songs for teenage girls, diluting and mocking the High Painful Seriousness of the grunge era.

In his marvelous book Sonata for Jukebox, Geoffrey O’Brien describes what it was like to be a child in the '50s hearing these songs, and what they meant to the older women in his house:

Ruth undertakes her meticulous work of arranging and folding and dusting accompanied by Perry Como and the McGuire Sisters and the Mills Brothers arranging and folding sound, as if to keep the whole enterprise moving forward. It seems that the music has been made for her and if whenever one song happens to suit her even better than the rest of them it’s an occasion for gratitude: a song like that is a token of mutual assistance… Love and Marriage, Cry Me a River, Sentimental Journey, Three Coins in the Fountain, Rags to Riches, Music Music Music: these are pieces of an unending cycle of story poems, an opera without boundaries or fixed roles that has been unfolding since before I was born and will keep playing until I figure out what they are singing about… Now and then an isolated phrase stands out. The turning of Kay Starr’s “Wheel of Fortune” mesmerizes even while its function remains unknown.”

Starr's "Wheel of Fortune" is still mesmerizing, especially the spooky, revolving harmonies in the chorus ("spinning, spinning, SPIN-ning"). Find it here.

The audience for this music was not a typical one-–these were women who had come of age, as my grandmother did, at the height of the Depression, who had spent their prime years during the war, working, fearing for their boyfriends, husbands and brothers, sometimes losing them. It was a generation deprived of its youth, in the postwar sense of the word--whatever carefree moments you had, you earned.

Rosemary Clooney, having grown up during the war, was now off on her own, still keeping the faith although the guy she was waiting for proved to be a waste. "Don't Worry 'Bout Me", a breakup song of amazing grace, humanity and wistfulness, documents resilience in the face of disappointment, provides a cheerful delusion (the singer graciously tells her lover move on to another woman) to cover the loss. Clooney sings the first bars of each verse with strength but then lets the rest of the phrase taper off--she's regretted her words as soon as she's sung them. Found on Everything's Rosie, an odds-and-ends '50s compilation.

By 1952, the great travails were over, the men had returned (even Korea, the miserable coda to WWII, was winding down), the children were coming--for many of these women, their prayers during the hard years had been answered. All that was left now was to grow old--happily for many, dismally for some--while the songs would be always there to remind them of all they had lost. And then, one day, the songs would go too.

(for HBM, 1914-2001.)

Willie Mabon, I Don’t Know.

In the 1952 presidential election, the Republicans retook the White House after two decades of losses, thanks to their choice of Gen. Eisenhower over someone who better represented the soul of the party, the conservative Sen. Taft. (As a sop to the right, Ike chose for his running mate an ambitious Congressman who had cut his teeth red-baiting.) Eisenhower, the sort of ideologically blank candidate that turns up on rare days to the great benefit of his party and occasionally of his country, was the last (to date) of the lineage of great American generals who devolved into mediocre presidents. That said, Eisenhower ran the country like a genial corporate chairman: he mainly left FDR/Truman reforms alone; he pushed to build the interstates and backed up Brown v. Board of Education with federal troops. He was honest, not vindictive and knew a snake (McCarthy, Nixon) when he saw one; he ranks in the top tier of 20th Century presidents, if elevated more by his competitors than by his actions.

He crushed Adlai Stevenson, first in the long line of Democratic presidential candidates considered by voters to be essentially too qualified for the job.

Harry Truman went home to Missouri, hated by a great many of the American public, who, in later, darker years, would remember him with much more fondness (one great aunt of mine told me once, in the '80s, "You know, President Truman wasn't as stupid as he made out to be.")

I think Willie Mabon would have voted for Stevenson. On the Chess Blues-Rock Songbook.

Films of 1952

Lo Sceicco Bianco (The White Sheik). Others may favor Fellini’s extravagant later epics like 8 1/2 but for me his masterpieces are his first two films, this and '53’s I Vitelloni, where his baroque taste for fantasy is tempered by the grime of real life. Funny, heartbreaking and marvelously acted.
Le Plaisir. Soon, the complete run of "Three's Company" will be available on DVD, but not any of Max Ophuls' great films. Plaisir, which starts with one of the most amazing continuous shots ever achieved, is a collection of three vignettes; it achieves perfection with the longest, a story of a group of prostitutes and their madam going on holiday in a small country town.
Singin’ in the Rain. This, along with '53's The Band Wagon, marks the end of the great Hollywood musicals. I mean, come on, who doesn't like "Good Morning"? Or Donald O'Connor's astonishing "Make 'Em Laugh" (which landed him in the hospital for a week after he did it, and then he had to do a re-take)? Or the title song? It's a Russian nesting doll of a movie--a film about actors remaking and redubbing a film (Debbie Reynolds' dubbing work being in turn dubbed by another singer), in the midst of which Kelly imagines another surreal film sequence (the "Gotta Dance"/Cyd Charisse bit, which almost destroys the movie).
Ikiru/Umberto D. The timing of these films’ release (just ten months apart) makes one believe coincidence has some divinity to it. Two studies on death and obsolesence; the Kurosawa film offers release, the De Sica despair.
Jeux interdits.
Outcast of the Islands.
Bend of the River/The Big Sky. Both more satisfying '52 Westerns to me than High Noon, a film I've never liked.
The Bad and the Beautiful. A Hollywood epitaph that reeks of wormwood; it begins with Kirk Douglas paying extras to show up at his father's funeral.
The Lusty Men. Mitchum. Nicholas Ray. Enough said.
Park Row.
Ochazuke no aji (The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). Minor Ozu, sure, which is like saying “minor Shakespeare.”

Oddities: My Son John. I saw a bit of this film years ago, on a terrible quality VHS bootleg. As many have said, it is to anti-Communism what "Reefer Madness" is to marijuana use. Unbelievably bad but marked with an inadevertant gonzo genius, and a sad depiction of Hollywood's paranoia/cowardice in the face of HUAC.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


VLADIMIR: Then the two of them must have been damned. ESTRAGON: And why not?

Hank Williams, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
Lefty Frizzell, I’m an Old, Old Man (Tryin’ to Live While I Can).

The end, when it came, was ridiculously legendary. Sitting in the back seat of his baby blue Cadillac, a bottle of whiskey by his side, Hank Williams died either on New Year’s Eve 1952 or in the early hours of 1953. Before he had left his hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, Williams had been shot up full of vitamin B12 and morphine; when his teenage driver Charles Carr stopped for gas in Oak Hill, West Virginia, Williams was already dead.

(The true cause and time of his death remains still a conjecture; some speculate he may have been dying when the porters carried Williams into his car in Knoxville.) Williams' last single released during his life was “I'll Never Get Of This World Alive," recorded in June '52. Find it here.

Williams’ death removed the center of country music, which no one in the years to come could quite replace. You can speculate what would have happened had Williams lived – would he have gone towards rockabilly, trying to get a piece of what Elvis Presley was making? Or would he have entrenched in Nashville, making soporific professional "country pop" records like many of his contemporaries would do? Perhaps he would’ve made some squirrelly novelty records, themes for television shows. Or just fully adopt his "Luke the Drifter" persona and travel around playing revivals or county fairs. At each show someone in the audience would recognize his face--as the years went on, they would be unable to place his name.

There was an heir apparent. When Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams toured together, they would flip a coin each night to see who went on first. Frizzell seemed ready for fame--since 1950, he had begun pumping out hits: “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time”, “I Love You a Thousand Ways”, “Always Late With Your Kisses”. He would buy a Cadillac, drive it until it ran out of oil, and then buy another one. He had an unmistakable voice, inspired by Jimmie Rodgers but flavored with his own stylings (“I get tired of holding high notes for a long time. Instead of straining, I just let it roll down, and it feels good to me,” Frizzell once said).

Yet when Williams died, Frizzell began falling apart— too much booze and pills, some disastrous career moves. By 1954 the hits had stopped, and when Frizzell died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975, it marked the end of a brilliant but ultimately unfulfilled career.

“I’m an Old Old Man”, recorded on October 7, 1952, shows Frizzell already accepting premature fatality. On this compilation.

At long last, 1952 is ending. One big last post coming end of week or early next.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


The spoils of the just

Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, Are You Missing Me?
The Louvin Brothers, The Family Who Prays.

In September 1952, a pair of itinerant musical brothers began recording for Capitol Records, marking the end of the pair’s years in the wilderness. When their first Capitol single, “The Family Who Prays,” actually earned them a substantial royalty check, the brothers were scared to cash it at first, fearing their record company had made an accounting error.

Ira and Charlie Louvin were born under the name Loudermilk, which they changed around 1947 due to the musical public's general inability to spell or pronounce the name. The brothers grew up in Alabama and were inspired by the spate of brother acts dominating the ‘30s country music scene, such as the Monroes, the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmores and the Carlisles. Ira learned to play mandolin and taught his brother on guitar.

Much as when Roger McGuinn and David Crosby stepped out of a movie theater playing A Hard Day's Night set on becoming pop stars, the Louvins saw Roy Acuff’s huge touring car burning down the road (on the way to a show the Louvins could not afford admission to) and determined to make a career in country music.

The '40s, however were a rough time--the brothers played the ragged edge of the southern touring circuit, never getting any breaks, and split up a few times, such as when Charlie joined the army in 1945. Yet they began to progress, getting a name for themselves first as songwriters. Because their lyrics and sound were far more traditional than the type of commercial honky—tonk fare then getting radio play, Louvins compositions instead found a home in bluegrass.

The Louvins' “Are You Missing Me?” is here covered by another brother act—Jim and Jesse McReynolds. The McReynolds began their professional career in 1946 and soon decided to cast their lot with bluegrass, adding a five-string banjo to their guitar/mandolin lineup hoping to achieve a similar sound to that of Earl Scruggs. Recorded on June 13, 1952 and released as Capitol 2233.

By contrast, “The Family Who Prays” seems more modern, despite the traditional lyrical sentiment, as it features top Nashville session men like Chet Atkins on guitar and Floyd “Lightning” Chance on bass. Recorded on September 30, 1952 and can be found on this compilation.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


the be-bop boy takes five

James Banister, Ain't Gonna Tell You No Lie.
Joe Hill Louis, Dorothy Mae.
L.C. Hubert, Lucy Done Moved.
Willie Nix, Bakershop Boogie.
Woodrow Adams, Train Time.
Elven Parr & the In the Groove Boys, I'm a Good Man.
Walter Horton, Little Walter's Boogie.

Rock & roll, like a medieval cathedral, is the work of anonymous craftsmen spread over the generations. Here is a slab of blues/rock recordings made in Sam Phillips' Memphis studio during 1952--none from any bluesman who made it big in any commercial sense; for most of them, these records were the high-water mark. Most were unreleased, some the product of a whim--a journeyman drummer's desire to sing; someone trying to give their trombone-playing cousin a break; a few traveling players coming together for a day or two, trying to find a sound.

Consider these tracks a substratum of R&B and rock--the fruit of musicians who had a few good songs in them, who put them on tape or acetate disc during a few afternoons in Memphis, and then vanished into the ether. These are their rocking epitaphs.

James Banister, who drummed with the Red Devils, a Chicago R&B unit, cut only one track at Sun: "Ain't Gonna Tell You No Lie", which was recorded on May 3 and never released. Banister allegedly became a minister by decade's end.

L.C. Hubert is a ghost--aside from having appeared on a few Howlin' Wolf sessions and having recorded "Lucy Done Moved" on June 14 (never released), there is nothing else known about the man.

Willie Nix's "Bakershop Boogie", recorded on October 9, was released as Sam Phillips' second single, Sun 179. Nix, a drummer, made a local name for himself and moved up to Chicago in 1953, but returned south in 1958, possibly to face a murder charge (he apparently was either never charged or was acquitted). He died in 1991.

Woodrow Adams, another cipher, recorded "Train Time" on May 24. It was never released.

Joe Hill Louis' "Dorothy Mae", recorded on July 18, was released as Checker 763. The brilliant Louis, born in 1921 in Whitehaven, Tennessee, supported himself doing odd jobs--at work he cut his thumb and died of tetanus in 1957.

Elven Parr's In the Groove Boys hailed from Osceola, Arkansas--Albert King was their singer for a time. On "I'm a Good Man", recorded on April 16 and never released, pianist Eddie Snow sings. Little if anything has been heard from Snow or any other of the Groove Boys since the Eisenhower years.

By contrast to most of these musicians, Walter Horton had a long and vigorous career. Born in 1917, Horton claimed to have recorded for Vocalion in the 1930s, though no evidence has turned up, and by 1952 he was travelling around the South, playing picnics and fishfries. "Little Walter's Boogie" is just one of the brilliant recordings he made for Phillips (and for which Phillips paid him $59 in total). Horton went up to Chicago and eventually played with Muddy Waters and Otis Rush. He died in 1981.

All these tracks can be found on Sun Records: The Blues Years, a fantastic 8-CD set that is now long out of print. Some of them are on this compilation.