Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Nighthawk 101 / Windy City Blues: The Transition 1935 to 1953

Side A
Side B


[Original Liner Notes]

Pinetop Every Day I Have The Blues (1935)
State Street Boys Sweet To Mama (1935)
Washboard Sam Easy Ridin' Mama (1937)
Robert Lee McCoy Prowlin' Nighthawk (1937)
Sonny Boy Williamson Sunnyland (1938)
Sonny Boy Williamson My Little Cornelius (1938)
Robert Lockwood Black Spider Blues (1941)
Robert Lockwood I'm Gonna Train My Baby (1941)

Guitar Pete Franklin Down Behind The Rise (1945)
Guitar Pete Franklin Casey Brown Blues (1947)
Tampa Red Green And Lucky Blues (1951)
Robert Lockwood Gonna Dig Myself A Hole (1951)
Robert Lockwood Dust My Broom (1951)
Tony Hollins Fishin' Blues (1952)
Tony Hollins Wino Woman (1952)
Johnny Shines Please Don't (1953)

This first issue of Nighthawk Records documents primarily the transitional work of Southern born bluesmen who immigrated to Chicago before the Second World War, but whose careers endured into the postwar era. The lure of the major studios and the easy availability of club work on the growing South Side made the Windy City the natural destination of talented blues musicians and the local blues scene was firmly established by the late twenties when the vanguard included Tampa Red, Big Bill, and Georgia Tom. The thirties brought Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Washboard Sam and Memphis Minnie while the forties produced Robert Lockwood, Johnny Shines and Muddy Waters.

The enduring standard, "Everyday I Have The Blues" made its initial appearance in duet context pairing pianist Aaron "Pinetop" Sparks with guitarist Henry Townsend. Both men shared a St. Louis background but traveled frequently to Chicago to make records. Townsend's guitar work with pianists, Walter Davis, Roosevelt Sykes and Pinetop rivals the best work of Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr for excitement and rhythmic tension.

The State Street Boys is, by any standard, certainly an all star group featuring Big Bill Broonzy in the company of Jazz Gillum, Carl Martin and Black Bob. Bill's smooth vocal is framed by Gillum and Martin's respective harmonica and violin solos which recall the jug band sounds of Memphis in a more sophisticated and urban setting. However, while retaining a prewar feel, the ensemble approach on "Sweet To Mama" contains, with the exception of drums, all the elements identified with Chicago blues of the fifties. Broonzy's generosity to newcomers is well known, but none benefited so much as Washboard Sam whom Broonzy claimed as his half brother. Broonzy wrote virtually all of Sam's material and participated regularly on his many recording dates including the session that produced "Easy Ridin' Mama," a tune that Broonzy first waxed in 1930. Sam's deep voice on this swinging rendition of the hokum favorite is ideally complimented by the clarinet artistry of the underrated Arnett Nelson supported by Black Bob's piano, Bill's guitar, and Sam's own washboard.

The May 5, 1937 session that produced "Prowlin' Nighthawk" and introduced Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk to the public ranks with the most important in blues history. Big Joe Williams rounded out the trio and the sixteen resulting titles greatly influenced the postwar trend toward harmonica/guitar duets and trios. The success of "Prowlin' Nighthawk" even prompted Robert Lee McCoy to drop his surname in favor of the more roguish Nighthawk and to adopt the tune as his early signature piece. Sonny Boy Williamson's unique harmonica and vocal style revealed that day, created quite a sensation and he was soon a regular session man appearing on literally hundreds of records. Another early Sonny Boy session gave us "Sunnyland" and "My Little Cornelius," this time with his old Tennessee associates, Yank Rachell on mandolin and Joe Williams (not Big Joe) on guitar. Rachell's first Chicago recordings were done during this session and the group reformed a few months later to record again with vocals by all three. "Sunnyland" is a classic example of Sonny Boy's early style, but "Cornelius" betrays a debt to the recordings of Sleepy John Estes, whose vocal phrasing he often emulated.

Robert Lockwood, the stepson of Mississippi blues giant Robert Johnson, is represented here by both prewar and postwar performances. "Black Spider" and "Gonna Train My Baby" are his first recordings done three years after Johnson's death, but are instrumentally faithful to his mentor's work. "Black Spider" was learned directly from Johnson who never recorded the theme himself, but inspired versions by Lockwood, Muddy Waters, and Johnny Shines. Lockwood says he only began to develop his own ideas as a guitarist after Johnson's death and the 1951 duets with pianist Sunnyland Slim show considerable expansion. "Dust My Broom" is a very rushed version of the Johnson standard with few surprises, but the cold war regular, "Gonna Dig Myself A Hole" contains sparse exciting guitar work. Though seldom featured as a vocalist, Lockwood was perhaps the most recorded guitarist of the fifties Chicago scene and appeared on countless sides by Sonny Boy No. 2, Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim and others.

Indianapolis based Guitar Pete Franklin only made a few trips to the Windy City and his presence on this collection is primarily due to the Chicago location of the session rather than the content of the performances. Franklin ran with Scrapper Blackwell for decades, but his guitar style represented here in duet with an unknown pianist, is not derivative but is certainly of the same school. The included titles represent Pete's total output as a "race" vocalist, however he subsequently played on a John Brim session for JOB before being rediscovered in the early sixties and recording one long out of print album.

"Green And Lucky" was recorded late in Tampa Red's prolific career but finds him at the top of his form playing slide guitar more loudly than usual, perhaps to compete with the huge success of Robert Nighthawk's adaptations of his style. The fine pianist is Little Johnny Jones who recorded regularly for Tampa, sometimes sharing the vocal chores. Jones also made sides under his own name an appeared on records by Muddy Waters and Elmore James. Tampa's career spanned twenty-five years as "The Guitar Wizard" and his sensitive bottleneck playing deeply influenced virtually all of Chicago's best slide technicians.

Tony Hollins is a very obscure figure sometimes credited with the authorship of "Crawlin' Kingsnake" which he recorded in 1941 and again in '52, but Big Joe Williams was first on record with the number some three months earlier. "Wino Woman" and "Fishin' Blues" are from a 1952 session (his last) which is omitted from the standard discography, but which produced four titles with Sunnyland Slim on piano, Hollins on second guitar, and an unknown yet spectacular acoustic guitarist capoed high on the fretboard and executing his runs with a flatpick.

Johnny Shines' "Please Don't" finds him in an unusual band setting with J.T. Brown on saxophone and Sunnyland Slim on piano. Though little is made of it, Shines does admit a vocal debt to Washboard Sam and a comparison of their titles on this album reflects the influence. Shines, of course, is best known for his down home material, but he fares well on this jump blues.

-Leroy Pierson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great!My first visit to your blog and i found some fantastic blues records.Thank you so much!!!