November 1st, 2010
Catalog No.: DE 808
Release Date: June 22, 2010
Chicago-based guitarist Jimmy Dawkins briefly ran a record label in the 1980s, Leric Records. The on-rush of the compact disc and the move away from 45 singles as a main release medium for blues doomed Leric, but now Delmark Records has resurrected some gems from Dawkins’ vault.
Through a series of 45-RPM singles releases, Dawkins brought the world the recording debuts of current Chicago stalwarts Tail Dragger, Nora Jean Bruso and Vance “Guitar” Kelly. Those artists are collected here, as well as interesting work by the late Little Johnny Christian, the late Queen Sylvia Embry and the late Robert “Big Mojo” Elem. And if that’s not enough, there’s a surprise at the end of the disc: both sides of a rare gospel single by Sister Margo and Healing Center Choir (as Delmark’s press sheet notes, “Gospel on Delmark? Hell, yeah!!!”).
Overall, this disc has the typical marks of indy blues releases—the playing is rough at times, sometimes not everyone is in tune, some of the lyrics are silly, etc. But the sum total is very entertaining and there are plenty of golden moments where everyone is punching above their weight. The glue that holds this album together is superb guitar playing, a good bit of it from former label-owner Dawkins. He plays lead guitar on the cuts by Queen Sylvia Embry and Nora Jean Bruso (who went by Nora Jean Wallace in the 1980′s), and Big Mojo Elam. Vance Kelly is all over this album, too, on cuts by Little Johnny Christian and his own tunes. Also backing Christian on lead guitar, on other tunes, are Michael Coleman and Vernon “Chico” Banks.
The Little Johnny Christian sides are smoldering onslaughts of guitars and vocals. This man was due more recognition than he got in his lifetime. The same can be said for Queen Sylvia Embry and Big Mojo Elam. Jimmy Dawkins was a great talent scout for his label, and most of the music from these three artists collected on this CD is of consistent and outstanding quality.
Vance Kelly’s headliner tunes range from the outstanding “Why You Hurt Me So Bad” to a throw-away instrumental, “The Jam,” which probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. However, samplers may disagree because it’s chockfull of various cheesy 1980′s synth and guitar effects.
Tail Dragger (James Yancey Jones) is featured in his first recordings here, made in September 1982. Although he models himself so close to Howlin’ Wolf to be called a “tribute artist” or “wannabe,” the man can sing the part. On these tunes, he’s backed by Chess legend Lafayette Leake on piano and there’s some tasty harp work by the late Eddie “Jewtown” Burks.
Nora Jean, last name Wallace in those days, was a bit raw in her November 1982 recording debut, but her soulfulness and understanding of the words she was singing was already evident. Dawkins’ outstanding guitar work adds needed polish, and the results stand up well.
The two cuts by Queen Sylvia and the one Big Mojo song are really special, perfectly executed and good examples of deep urban blues. Jimmy Dawkins puts on a guitar effects spectacle behind Queen Sylvia, but her voice stands up to it just fine. The Sister Margo cuts, “My God Is Real” and “Peace Be Still”, sound and feel completely different from the rest of the disc. Joyce Margo, who goes by Sister Margo and Lady Margo, brings a rich, soulful voice to this material. The second song holds up better musically, but both are played competently. The choir behind Margo on “Peace Be Still” is mixed too low, they are clearing singing well behind her.
Delmark once again does the blues fan a favor by bringing out a mainstream-priced collection of hard to find music (some of these original singles are extremely rare and pricey if you can even find them). The blues scene that Jimmy Dawkins captured was one in transit. The blues still had a bit of country feel to them, although they were completely electrified. There’s very little use of the synthesizers and faux-horns common on urban blues records today, but Jimmy Dawkins, for one, was not the least bit shy about throwing in guitar effects like phasing and flanging. An interesting contrast is heard in Queen Sylvia and Nora Jean Wallace. One was older and more firmly rooted in the earlier Chicago blues, the other was young and starting out and clearly listening to newer music and thinking about how the electric blues fits into it. Also interesting are the two gospel sides, this is electric, soul-dipped gospel but it is played in an older fashion not heard often today.
Aside from being a bit of a time capsule, this album is fun to listen to and some of these songs are likely to make frequent rotation in your iPod.
Reviewed by Tom Fine