Archive for December, 2007

Born in the Bronx

born.jpegTitle: Born in the Bronx
Editor: Johan Kugelberg
Publisher: Rizzoli (New York)
Format: Book (208 p.)
Date: 2007

In an unusual twist on the “coffee-table book”, Born In The Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop tells the story of the origins of hip hop through page after page of vivid, expressive images displayed as oversized two-page spreads. Editor Johan Kugelberg brings the scene of the 1970s Bronx to life with a combination of photographs (by Joe Conzo), flyers and posters (by Buddy Esquire), and album art and other memorabilia-rarely-seen images depicting the raw energy of the music, community, culture, styles, and attitudes that gave birth to one of the biggest musical and cultural phenomena of the twentieth century. While light on text, the few written sections scattered through the book highlight the first-person voices and testimonials of hip hop pioneers and early participants, and a helpful four-page timeline situates the Bronx scene in historical context- starting with the completion of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in 1963 which ushered in hard times for the neighborhood, and ending with Run DMC taking their Raising Hell album platinum in 1986. But the photographs and posters are the true storytellers, and this collection is a must-have for the hip hop enthusiast on your gift list this year.

Posted by Sunni Fass

View review December 7th, 2007

Afro Strut

afrostrut.jpg
Title: Afro Strut
Artist: Amp Fiddler
Label: Play It Again Sam (U.S. Edition)
Catalog No.: 32
Date: 2007

Combining elements of both hip hop and techno, along with funky groove lines and soulful, intelligent lyrics, Amp Fiddler‘s second album, Afro Strut, will not disappoint. With this new album, Amp Fiddler delivers an outstanding follow-up to his first solo project, Waltz of a Ghetto Fly, which was released in 2004. Though he has only recently pursued a career as a solo artist, he’s been in the music business for more than twenty years, and this experience is demonstrated throughout his first two albums.

Joseph “Amp” Fiddler is a keyboard player, singer, songwriter and producer from Detroit. He learned piano as a child, studied music at Oakland and Wayne State Universities, and toured with George Clinton as keyboardist for more than ten years. Fiddler references his Detroit origin in his use of soul, funk and techno-all genres which are part of Detroit’s musical heritage. This combination of musical genres also shows the influence of the artists he has worked with throughout his career, including Prince, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Jamiroquai, Carl Craig and Moodyman, as well as George Clinton.

This CD is actually the U.S. edition of the original Afro Strut album. Though Amp Fiddler is based in the U.S., he had been without a domestic record deal for some time, so the album was first released in the U.K. in 2006 (on the Genuine label), arriving in the U.S. about a year later. The U.S. edition of Afro Strut is not simply a re-release of the UK version, but features several changes, including five new tracks not found anywhere else. Three songs from the UK version are also replaced on the US version. One of the featured new tracks is a duet with Grammy nominated artist Corinne Bailey-Rae, titled “If I Don’t”, and showcases a jazzy, 1930s influence. This track originally appeared on the UK version as a solo, but was re-recorded with Bailey-Rae for the US release. The first track on the album, “Faith”, is an ode to spirituality featuring Fiddler in a duet with Raphael Saadiq. All tracks on the album, except for track 8, were written by Amp Fiddler, sometimes in collaboration with other artists. Fiddler also performed ‘vocals and keys’ on each track on the album.

At the 2007 Detroit Music Awards, Amp Fiddler won in three categories: Outstanding Electronic/Dance Artist, Outstanding Electronic/Dance Producer and Outstanding Urban/Funk/Hip Hop Recording for Afro Strut. Watch for more great music from Amp Fiddler, as I believe he will continue to produce amazing albums.

Posted by Meaghan Reef

Editor’s note: a representative sample of Amp Fiddler’s music videos are available on YouTube, including “Right Where You Are” (the first single released from Afro Strut), “If I Don’t” (the duet with Corinne Bailey-Rae), and “Ridin‘” (laid over a great compilation of old movie clips). Unfortunately there’s no clip yet of “Hey Joe,” his killer reworking of the Jimi Hendrix song.

View review December 7th, 2007

Messin’ Around Blues

blythe.jpgTitle: Messin’ Around Blues
Artist: Jimmy Blythe
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.: DE 792
Date: 2007

Delmark has just released a CD of “enhanced pianola rolls” recorded in Chicago in the late 1920s by Jimmy Blythe (one of the first boogie woogie pianists) for the Capitol Music Roll Company’s Nickelodeon series. Around 1970, Paul Affeldt, publisher of Jazz Report magazine, decided to release this material for the first time on LP as part of his Euphonic Sound label (named after his favorite Scott Joplin rag). Working with collector Bill Burkhardt of Grand Rapids, Michigan (who loaned the four rare Nickelodeon rolls) and using a restored player piano, Affeldt and fellow piano roll enthusiast Ed Sprankle meticulously recorded the rolls and released them as part of a two LP set also featuring Clarence Johnson. Delmark acquired the Euphonic master tapes from Affeldt (who passed away in 2003), and has been reissuing the digitally remastered material on CDs (though several of these reissues are clearly labeled “Euphonic series” in the Delmark catalog, Messin’ Around Blues is not labeled as such- at least not on the CD).

Jimmy Blythe was born in Kentucky in 1901 and moved to Chicago as a teenager (sometime between 1915-1918), where he studied with Clarence Jones. By the early 1920s he was well established in the South Side clubs as a ragtime and boogie woogie pianist. Library of Congress copyright records show that he also composed at least 40 compositions between 1922 and 1930, including five works featured on this CD: “Steppin’ On the Gas” (1925), “Forty Blues” (1926), “My Baby” (1927), “I Won’t Give You None” (1929), and “The Folks Down-Stairs” (1930). In addition, Blythe was also extremely active as a recording artist for the Paramount, Vocalion, and Gennett labels, performing both solos and duets, and backing up musicians ranging from Ma Rainey and Blind Blake to Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds. His song, “Chicago Stomp,” recorded for Paramount in 1924, is generally considered to be the first recorded example of boogie woogie (according to the liner notes, though earlier examples have been cited elsewhere; see John Tennison’s excellent website on the history of boogie woogie piano). Apparently Blythe made even more piano rolls than 78s- at least 200 for Capitol and its subsidiary labels alone- and these include some of his hottest solo performances.

For those not familiar with piano rolls, there are two types: those which were arranged (i.e., punched by hand by a talented arranger), and those which were played by a pianist sitting at a special recording piano, which faithfully transferred the notes, in tempo, onto a roll. The latter technique, developed around 1915, was employed for all of the Blythe piano rolls, essentially capturing a “live” performance (though some note correcting and doctoring could still be done after the fact). These piano rolls complement Blythe’s solo recordings released on 78s (most were reissued by RST on Chronological Order Piano Solos, 1924-1931), and allow for a much broader study of the artist.

Delmark has done a superb job of remastering the tapes; in fact, its hard to believe that these are not modern recordings (hats off to Frank Himpsl, the restoration engineer). Notable tracks include “Sugar Dew Blues” (a12-bar blues solo with a walking bass), “Function Blues” (a piano duet, though the second artist was never identified), and “Black Gal Make it Thunder,” a great South Side boogie woogie number. I must point out that much of this information comes from the original LP liner notes by Ed Sprankle (sent to me by Delmark along with the CD), which are a treasure trove of information about piano rolls and early Chicago jazz. Its regrettable that Delmark didn’t reprint the notes in their entirety; the extremely brief notes by Bob Koester only paraphrase portions of Sprankle’s original text. Regardless, Messin’ Around Blues is essential for anyone interested in early ragtime and boogie woogie piano. If you purchase the CD, just try to get your hands on a copy of the original notes!

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 7th, 2007

Songs About Girls

will.jpgTitle: Songs About Girls
Artist: will.i.am
Label: Interscope Records
Catalog No.: 602517468245 (UPC)
Date: 2007

Who is will.i.am? While he is arguably one of the most talented young producers around, legions of fans know him as the quirky and hyper frontman for the Black Eyed Peas (BEP). Well, my fan relationship with will.i.am is a little longer and more complicated that that. I became a fan of BEP when they debuted in 1998 with Behind the Front. The Los Angeles based group’s funkier sound on singles like “That’s the Joint” reminded me of earlier L.A. beatnik hip hop groups like the Pharcyde. So of course I stayed with them when they released Bridging the Gap in 1998 and I took advantage of opportunities to see them perform live. As soon as I saw them in concert, it became obvious that will.i.am was the soul of the group. That didn’t change when they brought in the singer Fergie in 2003. But that artistic shift from a more hip hop-centered sound to a more hip hop pop sound was probably my point of departure with BEP.

Despite the musical changes BEP made, I always kept an ear out for what production work will.i.am was doing because he has always had interesting musical ideas. I knew he was a great keyboardist and organist and I was a fan of his first full-length production album Lost Change. His production credits show a rare musical diversity. Just a sample of his projects includes: John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” Busta Rhymes’ “I Love My Chick,” Justin Timberlake’s “Damn Girl,” The Game’s “Compton,” and Common’s “I Want You,” as well as Santana’s “I Am Somebody” and Sergio Mendes’ “Timeless.” On top of that impressive resume he’s rumored to be working on both Whitney Houston’s and Michael Jackson’s comeback projects. Good choice.

But its 2007 and he’s released his much anticipated solo album, Songs About Girls- a really good hip hop pop album with some interesting songs mixed in. It’s not as innovative or obtuse as Lost Change (2001), and most of the songs are not quite as good as those he has produced for other artists. But listening to this album gives you a taste of the many musical sides of will.i.am. “Impatient” shows will.i.am’s electro-funk side, reminiscient of Jamiroquai during A Funk Odyssey, while “I Got it From My Mama” reminds me of some of the later BEP songs. will.i.am didn’t do all the work on the album- he collaborated with current hitmaking producer Polow da Don on “She’s A Star” and “Aint it Pretty” and with Fernando Garibay on “Donque Song” and “One More Chance.” The presence of both producers compliments what is going on during the rest of the album.

Songs About Girls has an intangible quality that unites a very diverse group of songs. Its hard to say which songs are better than others, because each one seems to conjure a different mood. But maybe that’s part of what has made will.i.am such a successful producer-he’s able to evoke many moods through the music he makes. In the end, Songs About Girls is a kaleidoscope showing different facets of what will.i.am is able to offer, and for a longtime fan like me, somehow will.i.am has made it all come together.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review December 7th, 2007

Art of Love and War

angie.jpgTitle: The Art of Love and War
Artist: Angie Stone
Label: Stax
Catalog No.: 30146
Date: 2007

In every genre of music there are those artists who never really break through to super stardom, but their consistent presence and artistry makes them a reliable source of good music. Angie Stone is one of those artists. I remember first hearing her sultry, yet definitely church-trained voice as a part of the group Vertical Hold. Although the group was short-lived, their moderate hit “Seems to Much to Busy” introduced R&B fans to Angie’s distinctive and skillful vocal style.

Throughout her career Angie has continued to find success with her solo work as well as through collaboratiions with artists like D’Angelo, Rapahel Saadiq, Lenny Kravitz, Omar, and Joss Stone. If you go back and listen to D’Angelo’s two albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo, you can hear Angie-esque intricate vocal arrangements throughout both projects. Seemingly always available to work with others, the quality of her music has rarely suffered. She has steadily created music that is reminiscent of an R&B era where the vocals and lyrics were the central appeal of the songs.

Her latest release The Art of Love & War is a collection of fourteen songs that deal with the convoluted emotions that often accompany love and relationships. But generally, Angie sounds pretty upbeat about love and her tone on most of the tracks reflects that type of positivity. Yet some versatility is displayed on the album. Ballads like “Sit Down” and “Pop Pop” show a tender and introspective side of Angie Stone while the song”Baby,” featuring the legendary Betty Wright, is a sassy retrospective of an ended love affair. The album even has a racially uplifting duet, “My People,” featuring James Ingram.

Here’s the “Baby” video featuring Angie Stone & Betty Wright (Courtesy of Stax)

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The thing about an Angie Stone is that if you’ve listened to her before, you’ll always know what you’re getting. That type of consistency is both good and bad because I, as a listener, am rarely disappointed but also rarely surprised. But after listening to The Art of Love and War, I do come away with a seamless listening experience, and the really great vocal and instrumental arrangements remind me of why I own every Angie Stone record. In the end, Angie Stone fans will really like The Art of Love and War, and those who have never checked her out before will hear what they’ve been missing.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review December 7th, 2007

Tribute to Ella Jenkins

jenkins.jpgTitle: cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins Live!
Artists: Various
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Format: DVD
Number: SFW DV 48007
Date: 2007

“Ella Jenkins is to children’s music what Ella Fitzgerald is to jazz.”
–The Washington Post

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Ella Jenkin’s first recording with Folkways Records (Call and Response: Rhythm Group Singing, 1957), Smithsonian Folkways has released the DVD cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins Live! The footage comes from a special tribute concert held at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, where the country’s foremost children’s music performers paid their respects to the “First Lady of Children’s Music” (a CD with much of the same repertoire was released in 2004). This DVD would make a wonderful gift for the children and music educators on your holiday list.

Ella Jenkins was born in St. Louis in 1924, but has been living and performing in Chicago for most of her 80 plus years. A legendary figure in children’s music, she has received dozens of awards, including the 2004 GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award and the 1999 ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award (the first woman recipient), and has made guest appearances on many television shows, including the perennial favorites of the kindergarten set- Mr. Rogers and Barney. Over the years Jenkins has released more than 30 albums and 2 videos on the Smithsonian Folkways label, and her classic album You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song is the best-selling record in the history of Folkways.

The tribute concert features an all-star cast with appearances by Cathy Fink, Red Grammer, Riders in the Sky, Tom Chapin, John McCuthcheon, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger and Mike Stein, among others- singing covers of Jenkins’ songs as well as their own compositions. Highlights include Sweet Honey in the Rock performing Jenkins’ signature song “Miss Mary Mack” and Ella herself singing “I Know a City Called Okeeehobee,” which demonstrates the style of call and response audience participation that has captivated so many over the years. For the younger set there is an appearance by the Rockin’ Hadrosaur from Hackensack (who is much hipper than Barney!).

In addition to the live concert performance, there are several wonderful bonus features on the DVD. The brief “Slide Show” includes a chronological overview of Jenkins’ life in photos. In “Backstage Greetings” the artists offer personal congratulations to Jenkins on her 50 years in show business. But the most interesting bonus feature is “Conversations with Artists” (recorded 2/5/2006), where the performers weigh in on the many ways that Ella Jenkins has influenced them over the years. Jenkins is also given an opportunity to describe the ways she engages children in the music and her work with the Chicago Public Schools. Another highlight is a conversation with Pete Seeger, who discusses Jenkins’ history with Folkways, her skills as a songwriter, and her incorporation of world languages and cultures. While explaining her multigenerational appeal, Seeger notes: “A beautiful melody will leap language barriers, or religious barriers, or political barriers- but like all good art, even a simple children’s song can mean different things at different times- the songs bounce back new meanings as life gives you new experiences.” This is the key to Jenkins’ success, and the reason her music remains timeless.

“Put Ella Jenkins, children, and some musical instruments together and what you get is pure magic.” –Chicago Sun

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 7th, 2007

Gettin’ Up

gettinup.jpgTitle: Gettin’ Up: Live at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Rosa’s, and Lurrie’s Home
Artists: Carrie and Lurrie Bell
Format: DVD, NTSC Region Free Coding, PCM 24-bit/48 kHz Stereo
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.: DVD1791
Date: 2007

Gettin’ Up documents one of the last performances by blues harmonica legend Carey Bell (1936 – May, 2007). Bell was born in Macon, Mississippi, and began playing harp at the age of eight. He eventually made his way to Chicago where he fell under the influence of harp masters Little Walter and Big Walter Horton as he began to play the club circuit. Bell went on to found quite a musical family, and several of his 15 children became blues musicians themselves. Carey Bell has been recording since 1969, and his son Lurrie, a guitar player, first appeared on one of his studio albums in 1977. The live performances featured on this disk bring the two back together to demonstrate their unusual synergy.

The disk features three different dates – Rosa’s Lounge (July 27, 2006); Buddy Guy’s Legends (October 21, 2006); and a set of intimate duets with just the two Bells recorded at Lurrie’s home (July 28, 2006). At Rosa’s they are joined by Roosevelt Purifoy (piano), Bob Stroger (bass), and Brian “BJ” Jones (drum set). At Legends the two Bells are complemented by Scott Cable (guitar), Joe Thomas (bass), and Kenny Smith (drum set).

Gettin’ Up is a remarkable collection of musical gems – every tune on the disk carries the mark of Carey’s and Lurrie’s seemingly telepathic reading of each others’ musical thoughts, backed by two stellar groups of musicians. They open the date at Rosa’s with “What My Mama Told Me,” jumping right in with Carey’s characteristic vibrato-laden harp attack and heavy chordal riffing over Lurrie’s punctuated rhythm playing, effortlessly-phrased answering leads, and conversational solos. Carey’s voice is also at its expressive peak, and is flexible enough to belt out sandpaper renditions of classic blues tunes like Little Walter’s “Last Night” as well as original tunes like his “Gettin’ Up,” (which he wrote just before the Rosa’s Lounge gig after falling and breaking his hip). Lurrie chimes in on vocals a bit, too, however, with a driving version of the classic “Baby Please Don’t Go,” and a soulful solo rendition of the gospel favorite “Stand By Me” that closes the disk. The energy of the Rosa’s and Legends dates is infectious, but the two Bells at home in Lurrie’s living room feeding off of nothing but each other’s vibes is, to me, the highlight of the film.

In Gettin’ Up, Director Tom Koester has put together a disk that both visually highlights the synchronicity of the Bells (through effective use of multiple camera angles and occasional split-screen shots of the two) and captures the vibrant context through techniques like camera cuts to the audience dancing and singing along and the signed guitars hanging on the walls of Legends. Not only does the film look great, but it sounds beautiful, to boot – it was recorded at a high res 24 bit, 96 kHz, with audio options for standard stereo, Dolby Surround, and DTS Surround playback. The difference is notable, and the instruments all sound clear and well-balanced, with spacious panning. In addition to these audio options, the disk also comes with a well-crafted insert by Bill Dahl with complete track listing, chapter markers for navigating to each tune on the disk, and special features that include an interview with Carrie and Lurrie, a detailed discography, and a preview for the Delmark DVD Tail Dragger: My Head is Bald (which is as much about the Chicago Blues club scene – and Vern’s in particular – as it is about that legendary artist and notable guests).

Gettin’ Up is a worthy tribute to the legacy of two incredible bluesmen, and will likely convince you that the Bells deserve a place among the ranks of much better-known blues artists. The audio recording is also available on CD (Delmark DE 791).

For further information:

Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories
There is no end to writing about the blues, and Chicago blues in particular, but this book by David Whiteis is one of the sources Bill Dahl used in his liner notes for Gettin’ Up.

The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia
Written by Robert Santelli, Dahl also used this handy reference in compiling his liner notes for the disk.

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review December 7th, 2007

Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost

cannons_jug_stompers.jpgTitle: Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost
Producer: Todd Kwait
Company: Ezzie Films in association with Nevessa Production
Date: 2007

Last week I had the opportunity to preview a fabulous new documentary film, Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, which traces the African American roots of jug band music. Mark Blackwell, a member of the Lost Shoe String Band who happens to have a day job at the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana, had heard about the documentary and arranged for a special showing. Also present was Todd Kwait, the Cleveland lawyer and businessman who conceived the idea about six years ago, and went on to write, direct and produce the film. Here’s the synopsis from the official website:

Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost is a documentary film on the history of Jug Band Music. It traces the roots of American music beginning with Gus Cannon and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, The Memphis Jug Band and the Dixieland Jug Blowers from the 1920′s, and weaves a tapestry through interviews, live performances, archival footage, and photographs showing their influence on the ever-popular folk and rock movements of the 1960s.

The movie is written and directed by independent filmmaker Todd Kwait, and includes interviews and live performances by John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, Bill Keith, Maria Muldaur, and the late Fritz Richmond from the influential Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, plus many more artists who were influenced by the great jug band musicians from our past.

This movie is a historical retrospective that spans the globe and honors many great talents from yesterday and today. Filming for Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost took the crew to Japan, Sweden, and Kingston, Ontario. Closer to home, filming took place in Northern California; Woodstock, New York; Portland, Oregon; Memphis and western Tennessee; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Louisville, Kentucky; and Cleveland, Ohio.”

The opening clip on the trailer begins, appropriately enough, with a handcranked phonograph playing a 78 rpm record of “Viola Lee Blues” by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, written by band member Noah Lewis and recorded for the Victor label ca. 1929. This song actually served as the catalyst for Kwait’s journey into the history of jug band music.
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Kwait was a huge fan of John Sebastian, leader of the ‘60s folk-rock band the Lovin’ Spoonful. Sebastian had actually started his career in the Even Dozen Jug Band during the peak of the folk revival scene. Those of you familiar with the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit song from 1965, “Do You Believe in Magic,” might recall this reference in the second verse: “If you believe in magic, don’t bother to choose/ If it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues.” Obviously old time music was Sebastian’s first love, and in the late ‘90s he formed John Sebastian and the J Band. Their 1999 album Chasin’ Gus Ghost featured an arrangement of “Viola Lee Blues,” along with several other Gus Cannon and Noah Lewis songs (and obviously inspired the title of this film).

After attending a performance of the J Band in the late ‘90s, Kwait realized that he knew next to nothing about jug band music. Further exploration revealed that the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia had performed as Mother McCree and the Uptown Jug Band Champions in 1964, which eventually morphed into the Grateful Dead. As any Deadhead is sure to know, “Viola Lee Blues” was also performed extensively by the Grateful Dead between 1966-70. Kwait began to wonder, just what is this jug band music, and where did it come from? Not finding the answers readily available, he began his six year quest.

Through the assistance of John Sebastian, Bob Weir, Charlie Musselwhite, Geoff Muldaur, historian Samuel Charters, and especially Fritz Richmond (a member of the seminal Jim Kweskin Jug Band), the history of jug band music has now been explored for the first time on film. Though much time is spent chronicling the revival of jug band music by white artists in the 1960s, as well as contemporary performances in both the U.S. and Japan (the Japanese jug bands are hysterically funny), its African American origins are certainly not overlooked.

Many believe that jug band music originated around 1900 in Louisville, Kentucky, where whisky jugs were plentiful due to the community’s long association with bourbon. One of the more famous groups was the Louisville Jug Band, led by Earl McDonald. In 1903 they performed at the Kentucky Derby, setting off a tradition that lasted into the 1940s. Soon jug bands were “serenading steamboat passengers up and down the Ohio River,” and by the 1920s “jug bands were entertaining theater and dance crowds in major cities east of the Mississippi. Check out this amazing historical footage of Whistler’s Jug Band performing in Louisville around 1930 (posted by permission of Shanachie, from the the Yazoo DVD Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be: Early Rural & Popular Music From Rare original Film Master, 1928-35).[i]

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Another place where the music took hold was Memphis, Tennessee, where the jug bands were more firmly rooted in country blues and earlier African-American traditions. The two most celebrated Memphis groups were Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers and Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, but it is Cannon who was most revered by the sixties folk musicians and who receives most of the attention in the film, due to his extraordinary technique on the banjo and jug, which he fastened around his neck like a racked harmonica. Interestingly, the first half of the film features Taj Mahal as the voice of Gus Cannon (Cannon himself died in 1979 at the age of 104). According to Kwait, Taj’s narration is based on actual Cannon quotes, lending a degree of authenticity to the scenes. Also profiled is band member Noah Lewis. Reverently called “the Robert Johnson of harp players” by Bob Weir, Lewis was known for his ability to play two harmonicas at once, using both mouth and nose.

Between 1927-1930, Cannon’s Jug Stompers recorded 24 songs for Victor (several were penned by Lewis), featuring some of the best jug band music ever released. Notable tracks include “Minglewood Blues” (covered by both the Grateful Dead and Sebastian’s J Band), “Viola Lee Blues,” “Mule Get Up in the Alley,” and “Walk Right In.” The latter was a huge hit for the Rooftop Singers in 1963, which led to Cannon’s rediscovery by Sam Charters. Stax arranged a recording session for the 79-year-old Cannon in 1963 (he was living in the neighborhood at the time), and amazingly Will Shade and Milton Roby were still around to back him on jug and washboard, respectively. Only 500 copies of the LP were pressed by Stax under the title Walk Right In, but it has since been reissued by Fantasy on CD.

Towards the end of the film, after considerable focus on Sebastian and the appropriation of jug band music by white folk musicians and Japanese enthusiasts, I began to wonder if any African American groups were participating in the revival of the tradition. Kwait obviously anticipated this question, for almost immediately the focus of the film shifted to the Sankofa Strings (otherwise known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, featured in the Oct. 2006 issue of Black Grooves). Sule Greg Wilson, Sankofa’s spokeman, explained that most African American musicians consider jug band music to be too old fashioned, too pre-blues, and too connected to the days of medicine and minstrel shows. But the Sankofa Strings/Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing much to promote this distinctive African American music genre, and are seen in the film teaching school kids to play the washboard and other jug band instruments. I look forward to future CD releases by this group, and am excited that immediately following the film people were already talking about bringing the Chocolate Drops to town.

Kwait is still looking for a distributer for the film, so don’t expect a DVD release anytime soon. If you’re lucky you might be able to catch Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost at a film festival or arrange for a local screening. The official world premiere was October 13th, 2007, at the Woodstock Film Festival, though there seems to have been an August preview at the Jug Band Extravaganza in San Francisco, and a January screening is scheduled at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It’s a great documentary, all the more amazing since it represents Kwait’s first foray into film making. I encourage everyone to get the word out- let’s get this film into distribution!

Related Discography:
Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Complete Works: 1927-1930
(Yazoo 1989)

Memphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers (JSP 2005, 4 CD box set)

Walk Right In, Gus Cannon (Stax 1963; Fantasy reissue 1999)

Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, John Sebastian And The J-Band (1999 Hollywood Records). Features Yank Rachell, one of the original jug band pioneers and master of the bluegrass mandolin, who performed frequently throughout southern Indiana prior to his death in Indianapolis in 1997.

[i] National Jug Band Jubilee website. Until the recent establishment of the annual National Jug Band Jubilee, Louisville had all but forgotten its role in the jug band tradition.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 7th, 2007

The Story of Oscar Brown, Jr.

mylife.jpgTitle: Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown, Jr.
Director/Producer: donnie l. betts
Company: No Credits Production, Inc.

In early November 2007, the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University invited filmmaker donnie l. betts to campus to screen his award winning documentary Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown, Jr. The film, six years in the making, chronicles Brown’s entire life and career. It is not only a loving portrait and celebration of the man and his work, but also an honest depiction of his faults and failures.

Oscar Brown, Jr. was born in 1926 to college educated parents. His father was an influential lawyer in Chicago. Brown recounts how the sounds and songs he heard coming from the streets growing up in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago influenced his life, his politics, and his work. He was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer but once he started getting praise and attention for his singing and songwriting, he knew he would never become a lawyer. Brown saw his music and poems as a way to not only entertain, but to also comment on the good and the bad he saw in the world.

Brown’s performing career began at the age of 15 when he got a part in a radio series with Studs Terkel. He continued in radio before entering politics and working with the meat packing union in Chicago. After a brief stint in the Army, which is an interesting story, Brown tried selling real estate but he spent too much time writing. It was during this time he began writing the musical Kicks and Company. At the same time Brown was working on the musical, his first album Sin and Soul was released to positive reviews. The film examines the promise and ultimate failure of the musical in detail and includes audio from Brown’s appearance on the Today Show with Dave Garroway to raise money to stage the musical.

Despite the failure of Kicks and Company, Brown’s career continued to prosper and diversify. He began writing lyrics to jazz songs. He collaborated with Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach on a work that eventually became the “Freedom Now Suite” – another interesting, and for Brown, a disappointing episode in his life. In the late 1960s, Brown began working with members of the Blackstone Rangers, a gang from the South Side of Chicago, in an attempt to help get them away from a life of crime. Brown and the Rangers produced a musical review entitled Opportunity Please Knock and footage of their appearance on the Smothers Brothers television show is included in the film. One of the poignant moments in the film is when Brown runs into two former Rangers, now adults, on the street on the South Side of Chicago and they give an impromptu performance.

In the mid 1970s, Brown stopped recording because he felt the record business was more concerned about selling records than they were about the content of the records. He didn’t record again until the mid 1990s. During the 20 years he didn’t record, he continued to be an activist for various causes and continued to write poems, music, plays and musicals.

The documentary highlights Oscar Brown’s successes, his personal excesses – such as his marijuana use, and his failures. Brown was married three times and fathered six children. His children speak lovingly but honestly about their father. Another poignant moment in the film is when Brown and several family members talk about the death of his son, Oscar Brown III, who was killed by a drunk driver in 1996. It is apparent the death of Oscar Brown III, a talented musician himself, is still very painful for his father and family.

One of the strengths of the documentary is the footage, some archival and some contemporary, of Brown performing his poetry and music. The performance clips wonderfully illustrate Brown’s breadth of talent and the expanse of his work. Archival footage includes excerpts from performances of the “Work Song,” “But I Was Cool,” and “Dat Dere.” Excerpts from contemporary performances include “Watermelon Man,” “Forty Acres and a Mule,” “Woman,” and “Bid Em’ In.” The documentary ends with a powerful new performance by Brown of “Rags and Old Iron” in the alley behind the home where he grew up in Chicago.

Another strength of the documentary is the stories and commentary provided not only by Brown himself, but by his colleagues, collaborators, and admirers. Among those interviewed are Nichelle Nichols, an original cast member in Kicks and Company, Abbey Lincoln, Amiri Baraka, Studs Terkel, and Charles Wheldon. While the documentary adequately examines Brown’s work and his influence on his contemporaries, it would have been nice to hear from younger artists, especially rap and hip hop artists, who may have been influenced, knowingly and unknowingly, by Brown’s music, poetry, and activism.

There are some interesting “extras” included with the film. “The Final Act” includes performances of “Autumn Leaves” and “The Beach” along with footage of Brown’s family and friends at the hospital saying goodbye to him and reminiscing about him after he died on May 29, 2005. Another “extra” is footage of four “bootleg” performances. Unfortunately, the sound is not very good for these performances with the exception of “People of Soul” which was performed on The Tavis Smiley Show in February 2005. The last “extra” includes interview footage with Brown’s daughter Donna, Jean Pace Brown’s daughter Miko, and Ted Lange, who talks about his experience as one of the original performers in the musical Big Time Buck White.

Along with the film, which runs 1 hour and 50 minutes, there are two bonus CDs. One CD contains full length live versions of thirteen songs. Twelve of the songs are excerpted in the film. Unfortunately, “Dat Dere,” “Hazel’s Hips,” and “Mr. Kicks” are not included on the CD. The thirteenth song is “People of Soul” which Brown performed on The Tavis Smiley Show. The second CD contains contemporary full length versions of poems, some of which are not included in the film.

Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown, Jr. is a wonderful documentary. For those who have never heard of Oscar Brown, Jr., it is a great introduction to a remarkable artist. For those who already know of his work, it may be an opportunity to learn new things about the man and become reacquainted with his work. Regardless, the documentary gives recognition and documents the life of an artist who should be studied and remembered.

To purchase the three disc set, contact filmmaker donnie l. betts at: dlbetts@nocredits.com. For more information about the documentary, visit the official website.

Posted by Mary K. Huelsbeck (Archivist, Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University)

View review December 7th, 2007

Honeydripper

honeydripper.jpgTitle: Honeydripper (feature film)
Writer, Director: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi

December traditionally brings a wave of new releases at the box office, and this year is no exception. One that I am particularly anxious to see is Honeydripper, a new film by John Sayles that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 and is scheduled for limited release on December 28. Here’s the official synopsis:

“Iconoclastic filmmaker John Sayles, in his 16th feature film, continues his extraordinary examination of the complexities and shifting identities of American sub-cultures in the new film Honeydripper. With his usual understated intelligence, Sayles uses the rhythms of the citizens of Harmony, Alabama to immerse the audience into the world of the Jim Crow south. It’s a fable about the birth of rock n’ roll- a quintessentially American subject, but with a fidelity to time and temperament that is unusual in an American director.

It’s 1950 and it’s a make or break weekend for Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge. Deep in debt, Tyrone is desperate to bring back the crowds that used to come to his place. He decides to lay off his long-time blues singer Bertha Mae, and announces that he’s hired a famous guitar player, Guitar Sam, for a one night only gig in order to save the club.

Into town drifts Sonny Blake, a young man with nothing to his name but big dreams and the guitar case in his hand. Rejected by Tyrone when he applies to play at the Honeydripper, he is intercepted by the corrupt local Sheriff, arrested for vagrancy and rented out as an unpaid cotton picker to the highest bidder. But when Tyrone’s ace-in-the-hole fails to materialize at the train station, his desperation leads him back to Sonny and the strange, wire-dangling object in his guitar case. The Honeydripper lounge is all set to play its part in rock n’ roll history.”

Sayles’ has a fascination with the genesis of rock ‘n roll, and wanted to find a way to capture this pivital event in his film. “There was no single moment when R&B, blues, gospel, jazz, and country all came together to create this thing called rock ‘n roll,” he said, “but a big change came with the advent of the electric guitar. Before that, the piano ruledit produced a lot more sound than a little acoustic guitar. Suddenly, a poor boy like Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) could travel around with a portable, cheap, high-volume electric guitar and peel the paint off the walls.”

Here’s the trailer:YouTube Preview Image

If this isn’t enough to entice you, then check out the all-star cast. Taking on the role of Sonny Blake in his movie debut is singer/guitarist and Texas native Gary Clark Jr. The incredibly talented Clark has been playing professionally since the age of fourteen (which I gather was not more then 7-8 years ago), was recently named Best Blues Artist at the Austin Music Awards, and has opened for the likes of Gatemouth Brown, Jimmie Vaughan, Bobby Bland and Joe Ely. Over the summer he’s been touring with the Honeydripper All-Star Band, and a clip of their 6/19/07 NYC performance was recently mounted on YouTube:YouTube Preview Image

In the juicy role of Bertha Mae Spivey is none other than Dr. Mable John, the former Stax recording artist and onetime leader of the Raelettes (Ray Charles’ back-up group). Metalmouth Sims is played by Mississippi born harmonica player Arthur Lee Williams, who cut his teeth in Chicago and went on to play with Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Eddie Taylor. Blues guitarist Keb Mo, whose 2006 album Suitcase was a break out hit, also makes his film debut in the role of Possum. Tenor saxophonist Eddie Shaw, who has performed with Hound Dog Taylor, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, also has a cameo role as Time Trenier.

Sayles also made good use of local talent, including members of the New Beginnings Ministry Choir in Greenville, Alabama. According to producer Maggie Renzi, “We asked New Beginnings to give us their best singers, and Wow! We couldn’t have duplicated that sound. The local people have the right accents, the looksI had a crowd of extras, and after they got through with wardrobe and styling, I asked them to raise their hands if they looked just like old photos of their parents and grandparents. Every hand went up.”

WOW, indeed! I must remember to call the local theater and push to get this gem in the queue a.s.a.p. For more information, visit the film’s official website. As for Gary Clark Jr., his latest release, Tribute, is apparently only available via his website and CD Baby. I predict that will change mighty fast. A fourth CD is said to be in the works and will presumably be picked up by a major label.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 7th, 2007

Gospel at Christmastime

“Glory, Glory to the New Born King”: Gospel at Christmastime

decca.jpg

Today, nearly every popular gospel artist has a Christmas project in his or her catalog. The Mississippi Mass Choir, Luther Barnes, and Yolanda Adams are among those releasing Christmas albums this season. But when did the tradition of gospel artists recording Christmas carols begin? One is inclined to answer that Mahalia Jackson set the standard in 1950 with her Apollo recording of “Silent Night,” but the tradition goes back much further, more than two decades before the release of Mahalia’s disc. In truth, Christmas recordings by African American sacred artists predate gospel by several years.

The Elkins Mixed Quartette, also known as the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers, is the first known African American sacred group to record a Christmas carol. In 1926, the quartet, organized by William C. Elkins, sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” for Paramount Records. Two years later, the Lucy Smith Jubilee Singers of All Nations Pentecostal Church in Chicago released their only record, a Christmas-themed disc for Vocalion: “Pleading for Me” and “There Was No Room in the Hotel.” The lyrics of the latter no doubt resonated with African Americans living in Jim Crow America, as it described the Holy Family’s futile search for available lodging.[1]

More than a decade later, in 1941, the stalwart Heavenly Gospel Singers recorded the Yuletide spiritual “When Was Jesus Born” for Bluebird. The Middle Georgia Singers sang this same spiritual for the Fort Valley Music Festival in 1943. Captured on tape, the Middle Georgia Singers’ version can be heard for free on the Library of Congress American Memory website.

Although the Soul Stirrers, featuring the classic tenor voice of R.H. Harris, recorded “Silent Night” for Aladdin in 1948, it was the guitar-toting, Pentecostal-bred Sister Rosetta Tharpe who demonstrated the lucrative sales potential of Christmas records by gospel artists. In 1949, Tharpe, accompanied by her new background group, the Rosettes (formerly the Angelic Queens), recorded “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” for Decca. The two-sider was a smash hit, hitting #8 on Billboard‘s R&B Hit Singles chart and earning Tharpe and the Rosettes a coveted spot on CBS Television’s Supper Club with Perry Como on January 1, 1950.[2]

While Sister Tharpe’s record took the country by storm, it also took her gospel contemporaries and their record labels by surprise. Autumn 1950 witnessed a flood of Christmas singles by popular gospel singers and quartets. This is when Mahalia Jackson released her timeless arrangement of “Silent Night,” coupled with another Christmas chestnut, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” on Apollo. These were the first of dozens of Christmas recordings Mahalia would make during her career. Not to be outdone, the Ward Singers released their version of “Silent Night” in 1950 (Savoy).

Also in 1950, Philadelphia’s Gotham Records released eight odes to the season by its top gospel sellers, namely Brother Rodney, the Davis Sisters, the Harmonizing Four, and the Angelic Gospel Singers. The Angelics’ “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” became an instant classic. Thereafter, no Christmas program in the African American community would be complete without a performance of “Glory, Glory to the New Born King.” A couple of years later, the Angelics released another Christmas single, “A Child is Born.” The song’s similarity to “Glory, Glory” in melody and arrangement was no coincidence: back then, record companies deliberately created sound-alike versions of hits, hoping that they could strike gold twice.

Eventually, Gotham had sufficient holiday product from its gospel lineup to produce a various artists LP, most likely the first gospel Christmas LP. The album, Gotham X-1, is impossibly rare. Constellation reissued it in the early 1960s as The Christmas Story (SS-106). The album is part of Constellation’s “The Scripture in Song Series,” a seven-album collection of gospel from Gotham’s vaults. Thankfully, the reissue is much easier to find.

Nineteen fifty-one witnessed new Christmas product from Savoy, including the Patterson Singers’ “Jesus, the Light of the World” and “Christmas Morn” by Charles Watkins. Watkins’ gentle crooning of “Christmas Morn” is not as well remembered today as it should be. Truth be told, had race relations been better back then, Watkins’ version would have climbed the pop charts, it’s just that good. Charles Watkins was that good. He later became a Bishop in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

That same year, Sister Tharpe’s protégé Marie Knight delivered a double-sided Christmas single of her own for Decca (“Adeste Fideles”/”It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”). In 1953, the Pilgrim Travelers gave Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” an uncharacteristically morose treatment. While Bing’s original articulated the wistful yearnings of World War II soldiers, the Travelers’ version suggested a darker and less optimistic mood surrounding the Korean Conflict. Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith heralded the coming of a new decade by releasing a beautiful Christmas LP on Savoy in 1959. Marion’s “O Holy Night” in particular enchanted many a music critic.

Christmas gospel-style reached its apex in 1962 when Vee Jay Records issued the original soundtrack album of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. The Christmas musical starring the Alex Bradford Singers, the aforementioned Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart was a sensation: it toured Europe and continues to be presented the world over. Another full-length ode to Christmas released in 1962 came from a group that formerly recorded for Vee Jay. The Staple Singers’ marvelous The Twenty-Fifth Day of December was released on the group’s new label, Riverside, with Vee Jay-era accompanists Maceo Woods and Al Duncan on organ and drums, respectively. In Cincinnati, the Galatian Singers crafted a Yuletide LP of their own for King Records.

In 1963, Vee Jay released a various artists album called A Treasury of Golden Christmas Songs, featuring holiday fare by gospel artists under contract to the label, such as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Swan Silvertones, Caravans, and Charles Taylor. One lone track by the Gospel Clefs, the frenetic “Mary’s Boy Child,” has long confused collectors, since the Clefs were not Vee Jay recording artists. A review of Vee Jay internal documents, however, suggests that the company considered signing the Savoy artists at the time the Christmas LP was compiled, but the deal was never consummated.

Rev. Cleophus Robinson released Christmas Carols and Good Gospels for Peacock in 1967, an album that included a chilling version of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” In 1968, Checker Records released singles and an album of classic and new Christmas songs from its stable of artists, including the Soul Stirrers, Meditation Singers, and Salem Travelers, the latter two neatly folding anti-war sentiments into their holiday lyrics. Meanwhile, Brother Joe May, James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, and countless other artists contributed singles and LPs to the gospel Christmas catalog throughout the 1960s.[3]

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a stream of Christmas releases by artists such as Singing Sammy Lewis, the Gospel Keynotes, and various artists collections from Peacock, Malaco, and New Jersey-based Glori Records. Even Chicago’s venerable First Church of Deliverance choir contributed an EP of Christmas cheer. Among the Clark Sisters’ early LPs for the Sound of Gospel label was a Christmas album, New Dimensions of Christmas Carols, although it does not represent their finest work. In 1985, Edwin Hawkins released The Edwin Hawkins Family Christmas for Birthright, a project that featured Richard Smallwood’s “Follow the Star.” This breathtaking piece presaged the majestic beauty of Smallwood’s later compositions, such as “I Love the Lord” and “Total Praise.”

Sadly, the Hawkins album, like so many others mentioned in this essay, remains out of print and was never reissued. Still, each Christmas recording extended the tradition begun by the Elkins Mixed Quartette 81 years ago.

Posted by Bob Marovich (Copyright 2007 by Robert M. Marovich)


[1] Dixon, Robert M.W., Godrich, John, and Rye, Howard W. Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943. 1964, 1969, 1982, 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.[2] Wald, Gayle F. Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.[3] Hayes, Cedric J. and Laughton, Robert. The Gospel Discography, 1943-1970. Vancouver: Eyeball Productions, 2007 (this was reviewed in the July 2007 issue of Black Grooves). Editor’s note: see also Bob Marovich’s contribution to the December 2006 issue of Black Grooves, titled The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas.

View review December 7th, 2007

Welcome to the December Issue

We’re kicking off our holiday issue with a great feature on the history of gospel Christmas music recordings by Bob Marovich, publisher of the Black Gospel Blog. For the first time we’re also featuring several documentaries and feature films that are not yet available on DVD (put these on your “wish list”), including Honeydripper, a John Sayles film about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll starring Austin guitarist Gary Clark Jr., with appearances by Dr. Mable John, Keb Mo and tenor saxophonist Eddie Shaw; Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, a documentary on the history of jug band music that traces its African American roots back to Louisville and Memphis; and Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress, a documentary about Oscar Brown, Jr., Chicago’s “High Priest of Hip.” New DVD releases include cELLAbration Live!, Smithsonian Folkways 50th anniversary tribute to Ella Jenkins, the “First Lady of Children’s Music,” and Delmark’s Gettin’ Up, documenting the final live performances of Chicago blues harpist Carey Bell, who died last May. Delmark has also just released Messin’ Around Blues, a CD of “enhanced pianola rolls” recorded in the late 1920s by Chicago boogie woogie pianist Jimmy Blythe. Other CDs reviewed in this issue include the latest releases from R&B songstress Angie Stone and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am, plus the long-awaited U.S. edition of Afro Strut by Detroit’s Amp Fiddler. And for the hip hop fan on your holiday gift list, check out the beautiful new coffee table book Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop. That’s it for this month- a happy holiday to all.

View review December 7th, 2007

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