Monday, May 31, 2010

Nighthawk 104 / Detroit Ghetto Blues 1948 to 1954

"Just because he's got a Cadillac with that hydromatic drive, you don't ask him for no money. All you want to do is ride."
-Baby Boy Warren-

Side A
Side B


[Original Liner Notes]

Slim Pickens Papa's Boogie (1948)
Walter Mitchell Pet Milk Blues (1948)
Walter Mitchell Stop Messin' Around (1948)
L.C. Green Little School Girl (1952)
L.C. Green Going Down To The River (1952)
Sam Kelly Ramblin' Around Blues (1952)
Playboy Fuller Gonna Play My Guitar (1952)
Playboy Fuller Sugar Cane Highway (1952)

Rocky Fuller Soon One Morning (1952)
Rocky Fuller Come On Baby Now (1952)
Robert Henry Something's Wrong (1952)
Baby Boy Warren Hello Stranger (1953)
Henry Smith Lonesome Blues (1954)
Henry Smith Good Rockin' Mama (1954)
Baby Boy Warren Taxi Driver (1954)
Baby Boy Warren Bad Lover Blues (1954)

Though never really a blues recording center, by the mid twenties Detroit boasted a sizable black community attracted from the South by auto industry employment. Some like Charlie Spand and Big Maceo traveled to Chicago to record, but it was not until the late forties that local bluesmen had a chance to record on their own ground. A number of small time entrepreneurs began mastering titles in their record shop basements either for lease to established companies or for release on their own obscure labels which more often than not,found their only distribution outlet on the upstairs counter. Most Detroit artists were destined for the same commercial failure that eventually overcame such operations as Staff, Sampson, JVB and Von. Only John Lee Hooker was able to overcome the distribution nightmare and his success was achieved and exploited through a lease agreement with the West Coast Modern label. Included in this anthology are performances of legendary rarity and artistic merit that originated in the Motor City during the years 1948 to 1954.

Joe Von Battle, whose work constitutes the majority of this album, set up shop on Hastings street in 1948 and began recording bluesmen for his JVB and Von labels. The product was primitive from an engineering viewpoint and his distribution was terrible, but his labels always featured performances of great historical interest and musical worth. His first release was the strange Walter Mitchell coupling featuring Mitchell's own vocal and harp, second harp by Robert Richard, Boogie Woogie Red on piano, and an unknown bass. "Pet Milk Blues" is a version of a 1938 Walter Davis composition which also inspired J.B. Hutto's "Pet Cream Man," and "Stop Messin' Around" is loosely based on Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down." The eerie effect of the two harps in competition is heightened by the mournful wail Mitchell occasionally interspersed with his instrumental work.

Guitarist L.C. Green came to Detroit in the late forties according to his one time partner, Woodrow Adams, who grew up with L.C. in Minter City, Mississippi. Green waxed seven songs in Detroit for Joe Von Battle, but six were leased out and only one appeared on the Von label. Both titles included here are versions of the first Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little School Girl," but Green's repertoire was was larger and in fact has much in common with the recordings of the younger Clarksdale, Miss. singer, R.C. Smith, who recorded for Arhoolie and Bluesville in the early sixties. Smith's "Lonely Widow" is a virtual twin to Green's "The Sun Is Shining" and suggests a common influence since Green was already playing in Detroit when Smith began playing and the rarity of Green's recording probably precludes it as Smith's source. The identity of the harmonica player on the two included titles is in question, but Robert Richard has been suggested because he is known to have jammed with Green often. The platter mate of Green's obscure Von recording, "Going Down To The River," is the fascinating "Ramblin' Around Blues," the only known release by harmonica stylist Sam Kelly who is accompanied by guitar and second harmonica, probably Green and Richard respectively. Kelly blows really top notch harmonica with great originality and feeling and relies on loosely strung traditional verses for his lyrics which include a reference to a Memphis background.

Playboy and Rocky Fuller are both early pseudonyms for New Orleans born Iverson Minter, who later had minor success using the name Louisiana Red. The sides included here are his first and typically were recorded in Von Battle's basement. Minter's recordings from this period are exciting yet blatantly imitative, perhaps reflecting a young man's search for his own style. "Gonna Play My Guitar" and "Sugar Cane Highway" incorporate the early Muddy Waters band style with Playboy picking the familiar slide patterns supported by and unknown harmonica and piano. On the former title Playboy even warns Muddy of an upcoming Chicago confrontation with Muddy's woman as spoils for the victor. This coupling is particularly unusual as it was pressed in Hollywood, California as a vanity item on the aptly named Fuller label,and was distributed primarily from the artist's own car trunk. The Rocky Fuller titles were leased to a major company in hope of better distribution, but in spite of a strong performance, the pair never sold perhaps because they were too firmly in the Lightnin' Hopkins mold.

With ten releases to his credit, singer/guitarist Baby Boy Warren was one of the most prolific of Detroit bluesmen and he is therefore represented here in work from two different sessions. His 1953 "Hello Stranger," a version of the first Sonny Boy Williamson's "Mattie Mae Blues," seems to have been his signature piece as he recorded two other versions in addition to this one with an all star band including presumable Sonny Boy 2 on harp, Boogie Woogie Red on piano, Calvin Frazier on second guitar and Washboard Willie on washboard. The Sampson pressing, "Taxi Driver" and "Bad Lover Blues" was Baby Boy's last and certainly his rarest recordings, but finds him at the top of his form on two original compositions with fine lyrics and solid guitar work supported again by Boogie Woogie Red, but with Little George Jackson on guitar and Jimmy Tarrant on drums.

"Papa's Boogie," Eddie Burns' 1948 debut, is a harmonica/guitar duet recorded by Bernie Bessman and leased to the Holiday label which issued under the Slim Pickens pseudonym. Guitarist John T. Smith never recorded again, but Burns enjoyed a modestly successful musical career with a dozen records to his credit and a decade of weekend club gigs often with John Lee Hooker who waxed some of his own bester performances (again for Bessman) with Burn's harmonica in support.

Little is known about the other artists included in this anthology. Guitarist Henry Smith unfortunately made only two records, one of which is the fine coupling heard here with Eddie Burns on harp, Calvin Frazier on second guitar and Washboard Willie on washboard. The first Sonny Boy Williamson's 1940 ode to syphilis, "My Little Machine," was reworked into an even more blunt version in disciple Robert Henry's 1952 "Something's Wrong With My Loving Machine." The members of Henry's backup group on this session are presently unknown.

-Leroy Pierson


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much once again!I love those good old blues records.It's very hard to find.Thanks...steve

Botched Surgery said...

Hey Steve,
Glad you dug 'em. There's 3 (or 4?) more Nighthawk releases I've got to get up here. Unfortunately it'll have to wait until November. Don't worry though- a deluge of great music will follow.

Botched (from Waynesboro, VA)