Since our website was unexpectedly shut down for maintenance this month following a hacker attack, we’ve decided to delay posting the majority of the reviews we have on file until July 1. Instead, we’re running a feature on Black Music Month plus a lengthy review by Tom Fine on the new Robert Johnson Centennial Collection, complete with audio examples comparing the new transfers to previous reissues.
Last but not least, special thanks to our WordPress gurus—Adam Butcher and Garett Montanez—for cleaning up the website and getting us back online!
June 26th, 2011
Title: The Complete Original Masters: Centennial Edition
Artist: Robert Johnson, plus various artists
Catalog No.: 88697-85907-2
Formats: 2CD set; Limited Edition Box set
Release Date: April 26, 2011
There’s no need to review Robert Johnson’s place in the blues and rock music pantheon. For reasons right and rational or otherwise, his 29 recorded songs have profoundly affected numerous blues and rock musicians in the years after his brief life, even more brief music career and violent death. This is the third systematic reissue of Johnson’s master and alternate takes in modern times, and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, Sony/Legacy has combined a very good sound restoration with a deluxe package that includes other blues music from Johnson’s era and a disc of songs recorded at the same studios and the same days that Johnson waxed his sides.
The Complete Original Masters: Centennial Edition is a limited edition (1000 individually numbered copies) box set retailing for $349 which includes 12 vinyl discs that recreate the look of the original 78s, accompanied by a deluxe hard cover illustrated booklet and five bonus discs:
This review will focus on the 2-CD reissue, Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection, plus the other bonus materials listed above which accompanied Legacy’s pre-release press kit. Those unfamiliar with Robert Johnson should consult other resources, or read the extensive booklet accompanying this set. A newcomer to this music should also listen to the Arhoolie collections of Charlie Patton and Patton’s contemporaries Son House and Willie Brown, all of whom heavily influenced Robert Johnson. Johnson’s genius was that he synthesized the music of the older bluesmen with new ideas and riffs he made up, and brought some new themes and word patterns into blues music. Later bluesmen and rock musicians made these new elements a bigger part of the music as time went on.
The first CD of The Centennial Collection contains the results of Johnson’s recording sessions in San Antonio, Texas, on November 23, 26 and 27, 1936. There were 16 master takes and 6 alternates. Tunes include blues classics such as “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and “Come On In My Kitchen.” But there was only one semi-hit at the time, “Terraplane Blues”/”Kindhearted Woman Blues,” released on the Vocalion label. That one hit was sufficient for American Record Corporation to ask Johnson back for more recording sessions, this time in Dallas, on June 19 and 20, 1937. The Dallas sessions netted 13 master takes and 7 alternates. “Love In Vain Blues”/”Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)” was the only record to move the needle, and it did so after Johnson died in August 1938, reportedly poisoned by the jealous husband of a lover. Researchers later found witnesses to Johnson’s last days, and suffice to say his death was painful and violent.
The restoration quality for these CDs is superb. The sound quality improvement alone is a reason to ditch the 1991 reissue set and buy this one. It’s also good to have the alternate takes issued after the master takes, so one doesn’t have to repeatedly listen to the same tune twice in a row. The earlier CDs were over-processed with noise reduction and other filtering, and the overall level was very low for some unknown reason. Those problems were corrected this time around. The 24-bit transfers from 78 rpm discs (and whatever metal parts remain in Sony’s vaults) by Steven Lasker are superb, while mastering engineer Seth B. Winner was responsible for additional digital restoration (the 78 rpm transfers and restoration for the vinyl set were apparently done separately by Matt Cavaluzzo and Charlie Crump, among others, but have not been heard by this reviewer). For the first time, there is clarity to Johnson’s voice and guitar playing on the majority of tracks. Guitar players will revel in this, and a careful listen will reveal new details about Johnson’s techniques, tunings and pick and slide choices. His vocals are shown to be more subtle and complex than in previous reissues, with a sense of Johnson “working the mic” and varying his dynamics and delivery to suit each tune. One thing immediately recognizable is how his vocal and songwriting advanced between 1936 and 1937. At the later sessions, he was stretching the blues genre, and at the same time seemed impatient with the constraints of the chord and song structures, sometimes breaking rhythm and riffing asides, then returning to the base song. Where would he have taken this technique if he had lived longer and recorded more? Where would he have taken the definition of blues music?
The other two bonus CDs in this set are equally fascinating. Disc 3 is called Blues From the Victor Vault, and it contains 24 excellently-restored cuts from 1928-32 by Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis, R. T. Hanen, Sleepy John Estes, the Shreveport Home Wreckers, Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey, McCoy & Johnson, Samuel “Fat” Westmoreland, Kaiser Clifton, Charlie Kyle and Ruby Glaze & Hot Shot Willie. The musical skill and sound quality vary, but most sides are worth hearing and may be unfamiliar to modern ears since some of these 78s are quite rare.
Disc 4 is a treasure. Titled Also Playing, it collects 10 songs recorded by American Record Company on the same days in the same locations as the Robert Johnson sessions. The music is country & western (by The Chuck Wagon Gang, Crystal Springs Ramblers, Zeke Williams & His Rambling Cowboys and The Light Crust Doughboys) and Tex-Mex (Andres Berlanga y Francisco Montalvo and Hermanas Barraza y Daniel Palomo). These sides are likely new to most buyers of the set, and are well worth the listening. At the 1936 and 1937 ARC sessions in Texas, Robert Johnson was the exception and his music was something very different from most of the other artists recorded. The booklet notes for this CD speculate on musical cross-pollination, but there is no aural evidence of this. What’s more on display here is how varied and interesting music-making was in Texas at that time.
Finally, there is also a DVD drama-documentary, The Life and Music of Robert Johnson: Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl? Originally released in 1998, it’s narrated by Danny Glover and features Keb Mo as Robert Johnson in the dramatized scenes. Although it is sometimes guilty of legend-inflation, it is a worthwhile summary of Johnson’s life and times.
Because of the amount of music included and the variety of artists on the two non-Johnson discs, listening to this set is a very immersive experience. The deluxe packaging is nice and the booklet essays (by producer Stephen C. LaVere and Ted Gioia) are very informative and well-illustrated. Recommended for the superior sound quality alone, but the depth and breadth are big selling points as well.
The following video by Acoustic Sounds Inc. owner Chad Kassem offers a detailed look at the limited edition box set Robert Johnson – The Complete Original Masters – Centennial Edition:
For those of you interested in comparing the previous releases, linked below are excerpts from four different transfers of Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil).” This song was chosen because, according to the booklet notes for the latest reissue, metal parts exist and were used for the disk-to-digital transfer. One can probably assume this was the case in previous transfers.
Example #1 is from the Columbia LP issued in the 1970s, King of the Delta Blues Volume 2. It’s likely that this was a completely analog transfer, with any signal-processing done using filtering, equalization and noise-gating.
Example #2 is from the hot-selling 1990 The Complete Recordings reissue set. For this transfer, digital noise reduction and other signal processing was used.
Example #3 is from a lesser-known 1998 reissue CD from Sony. This discount-priced single disc was packaged with the original graphics of the King of the Delta Blues Singers LP, including the original liner notes. However, this song wasn’t included on the original 1960’s LP—it was on Volume 2, released in the 1970s. It’s a mystery what transfer was used in 1998—were new transfers done or was the original analog tape master used? The sound quality seems different from the “Volume 2” LP.
Example #4 is from this new 4CD Complete Masters reissue. According to booklet notes and other published sources, the disk-to-digital transfers were done in high resolution and at least two types of digital processing were used: “conservative” noise reduction and click/pop reduction. There was also playback-curve equalization done, probably in the digital domain.
Last but not least, if you want to celebrate Robert Johnson’s centennial in an entirely different manner, Sony Legacy recently partnered with Dogfish Head Ales to promote their new brew “Hell Hound On My Ale,” which features a dash of dried lemon peel in tribute to Johnson’s mentor Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Reviewed by Tom Fine
June 24th, 2011
In 1979, at the urging of Kenny Gamble and Dyana Williams, President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Month and hosted the first Black Music Month Celebration on the South Lawn of the White House.
The tradition has continued over the years, though it was not made official until the passage of the 1998 House Concurrent Resolution 27. In President Obama’s 2009 proclamation, he chose to revise the name to African-American Music Appreciation Month (though we note that the 1998 resolution did refer to African-American Music Month). Regardless, most continue to use the simpler BMM designation.
Following is complete text of Obama’s official 2011 proclamation:
“The music of our Nation has always spoken to the condition of our people and reflected the diversity of our Union. African-American musicians, composers, singers, and songwriters have made enormous contributions to our culture by capturing the hardships and aspirations of a community and reminding us of our shared values. During African-American Music Appreciation Month, we honor the rich musical traditions of African-American musicians and their gifts to our country and our world.
From the cadenced hums of spirituals to the melodies of rhythm and blues, African-American music has been used to communicate, to challenge, to praise, and to uplift in times of both despair and triumph. The rhythmic chords embedded in spirituals have long expressed a deep faith in the power of prayer, and brought hope to slaves toiling in fields. The soulfulness of jazz and storytelling in the blues inspired a cultural renaissance, while the potent words of gospel gave strength to a generation that rose above the din of hatred to move our country toward justice and equality for all.
Today, African-American musicians continue to create new musical genres and transform the scope of traditional musical formats. The artistic depth of soul, rock and roll, and hip-hop not only bring together people across our Nation, but also energize and shape the creativity of artists around the world. The contributions of African-American composers and musicians to symphony, opera, choral music, and musical theater continue to reach new audiences and encourage listeners to celebrate fresh interpretations of these and other genres.
In cherished songs passed down through generations and innovative musical fusions crafted today, African-American music continues to transcend time, place, and circumstance to provide a source of pride and inspiration for all who hear its harmonies. This month, we celebrate the legacy of African-American music and its enduring power to bring life to the narrative of our Nation.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2011 as African-American Music Appreciation Month. I call upon public officials, educators, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate activities and programs that raise awareness and foster appreciation of music which is composed, arranged, or performed by African Americans.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirty-first day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fifth.”
There are far too many Black Music Month event sites to mention, but be sure to look for programs and concerts in your home town and, even more important, support Black artists throughout the year! Also, check out some of the fun facts and features on the following sites:
Radio One has launched a national campaign “It’s All Black Music!” in celebration of African-American Music Appreciation Month. Their website includes the special features 100 Rewarding Moments in Black Music and Black Music Fact of the Day.
Atlantic Records just launched the year long, interactive campaign “I Heart Black Music,“ which will allow fans access to various digital promotions and content, artist interviews and more.
June 24th, 2011