Sunday, June 6, 2010

Nighthawk Records Series!

Hello all. Over the next half dozen posts we'll be looking at the bulk of Nighthawk Records' blues discography from the early 1980s. Nighthawk, like Arhoolie and Delmark, was a U.S. based label dedicated to reissuing rare early blues records. Located in St. Louis, they had an interesting focus on Northern urban blues recorded by first or second generation transplants from the rural South. For this reason there's a wonderful mishmash of acoustic and electric guitars, drums, upright basses, washboards, saxophones and generally a lot of great music where roots, blues, R&B, jazz, boogie-woogie and early rock collide. I'll let the liner notes speak for individual releases, but none of these are less than great.

Also, check out their website and order some stuff from them- they're now a roots reggae label representing some great 70s acts, and attempting an online discography/database of all Jamaican roots records from 1960-1985, Roots Knotty Roots. Tuff work indeed!


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

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Nighthawk 102 / Chicago Slickers 1948 to 1953

"Once I had a woman, who treat me nice and kind. But these Chicago slickers made my baby change her mind."

-Guitar Pete Franklin-

Side A

Side B


[Original Liner Notes]

Little Walter I Want My Baby (1948)
Floyd Jones School Days (1948)
Floyd Jones Hard Times (1948)
Forest City Joe A Woman On Every Street (1948)
Little Walter Just Keep Lovin' Her (1950)
John Brim Dark Clouds (1951)
John Brim Lonesome Man Blues (1951)
Earl Hooker Sweet Angel (1952)

Johnny Shines Ramblin' (1952)
Johnny Shines Cool Driver (1952)
Homesick James Lonesome Ole Train (1952)
Homesick James Farmer's Blues (1952)
Delta Joe Train Time (1953)
Big Boy Spires About To Lose My Mind (1953)
Floyd Jones Early Morning (1953)
Robert Nighthawk Maggie Campbell (1953)

This issue of Nighthawk Records presents sixteen classic recordings from Chicago's heyday as a blues center. The rapid local proliferation of small independent labels during the postwar years and the shoe-string economics practiced by their owners, fostered a fierce competitiveness more than matched in the musical community. Unfortunately, the failure of such small labels as Parkway, Tempotone and Random often obscured in extreme rarity even the most inspired performances by such regional heavyweights as Little Walter, Floyd Jones, John Brim and Johnny Shines. The resurrection of these important recordings will be cause for celebration in blues circles.

"I Want My Baby," the first studio collaboration of Little Walter and Muddy Waters, was waxed at a 1948 session secured by keyboard man Sunnyland Slim. This uptempo blues features trio vocals on the chorus with Walter in the lead role throughout and blowing acoustic harmonica reminiscent of his work for the Ora Nelle label one year earlier. The same session apparently produced the Floyd Jones titles "Hard Times" and "School Days," although only Sunnyland remains from the former group. Both numbers offer the well thought out and original quality of Jones' best work, yet despite this and the forceful instrumental delivery, the platter was doomed to obscurity by the early demise of the financially overextended Tempotone label. Jones remade both titles in 1955 for Vee Jay and their distribution network turned the pair into a regional hit.

The vocal and harmonica phrasing o Forest City Joe Pugh's "A Woman On Every Street" reveals his adulation of of John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson who inspired a whole generation of postwar harmonica stylists. Indeed, the flip side of this rarity is a "Memory of Sonny Boy" which recounts the tragic details of Williamson's violent death only a few months earlier on Windy City streets. Little Walter acknowledged only Sonny Boy as his influence and equal, yet Walter's recorded work seldom betrayed the debt, but rather set the pace for a new generation to follow. "Just Keep Lovin' Her" is a remake for Parkway of Walter's 1947 debut recording, but in contrast to the earlier effort, he plays harp right into the microphone on this version with long exuberant solos enhanced by the presence of Muddy Waters and Baby Face Leroy in supporting roles.

The husband and wife team, John and Grace Brim, traveled extensively during the early fifties and recorded in both Detroit and St. Louis before settling into the Chicago blues scene and their Gary, Indiana home in 1952. John's duets with pianist Roosevelt Sykes for the St. Louis based Random label constitute his debut although he played guitar on an earlier session in Detroit featuring wife Grace and the legendary Big Maceo. Brim's guitar style is indebted to the work of Indianapolis residents, Scrapper Blackwell and Pete Franklin, who even played lead guitar on a subsequent Brim session for JOB which included two versions of the Naptown standard, "Hard Pill To Swallow."

Though recorded in Memphis, Earl Hooker's "Sweet Angel" is rooted in the work of Chicago artists Tampa Red and Robert Nighthawk who both waxed earlier versions of this blues standard. Tampa's 1934 version already utilized the slide guitar patterns heard here, but Hooker learned the piece from Robert Nighthawk and executed it with the over-amplification so common among Memphis bluesmen of the period. The addition of drone-like harmonica accompaniment by an unknown provides the perfect foil for the gravel-throated Hooker.

Johnny Shines' masterpiece is certainly his 1952 recording, "Ramblin'" containing some of the most stunning slide guitar and vocal work ever waxed. Perhaps the familiarity of the traditional lyrics accounts for the intensity of the vocal which seems inspired even for Shines. The session also produced another slide classic, "Fishtail Blues," a version of mentor Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" which remains unissued and "Cool Driver," by comparison a subdued effort with original lyrics, and, according to Shines, Moody Jones in the role of second guitarist. Shines claims to also have recorded another version of this tune for the same label with harmonica by Snooky Pryor, but it was not released.

Homesick James Williamson launched his recording career in 1952 with the newly formed Chance label and the release of "Lonesome Ole Train" and "Farmer's Blues," two traditional themes enhanced by the playing of pianist Lazy Bill Lucas. "Lonesome Ole Train" is an adaptation of Tommy Johnson material while "Farmer's Blues" is a staple of Texas bluesmen, Lightnin' Hopkins, Smoky Hogg, Lowell Fulson, etc. But all similarity to the parent pieces is confined to the lyrics, as Homesick's unorthodox bottleneck treatment would be totally out of place in either Johnson's songbook or the entire state of Texas.

"Train Time," a duet between Sunnyland Slim (Delta Joe) and guitarist Baby Face Leroy, was first issued on Opera, then retitled and reissued as "4 O'Clock Blues" on Chance. Slim's downhome vocal ranks with his best, but Leroy dominates the side by the sheer force of his magnificent solo built of biting mandolin-like phrases.

Guitarist Arther "Big Boy" Spires made only a few recordings before rejoining the Chicago labor force, but he had a deep resonant voice well-suited to the traditional Mississippi blues that made up the bulk of his material. "About To Lose My Mind" was recorded in a basement with a four piece group including veterans, John Lee Henley and Johnny Williams, who both made records under their own names. Despite the murky sound quality of the sessions, Spire's moving singing is shown to good advantage.

The influence of Tommy Johnson is again felt in the closing performances by Floyd Jones and Robert Nighthawk. Jones was familiar with both Johnson and his one-time partner, Charlie Patton, and reworked their "Pony Blues" into the beautiful "Early Morning" which uses the same guitar figure that proved successful on Floyd's earlier "Dark Road" and "On The Road Again." Little Walter's sensitive harmonica backing and Floyd's string slapping support the hoarse shouted vocal in a truly classic performance. Robert Nighthawk recorded as early as 1937, but his knowledge of Tommy Johnson's style was gained second-hand under the tutelage of Memphis' Houston Stackhouse. Nighthawk retains the lyrics of the original "Maggie Campbell," but substitutes the guitar part from another Johnson song, "Big Fat Mama." Bob Call is the fine pianist on this title.

Leroy Pierson