Bumpus – Way Down Deep

Title: Way Down Deep

Artist: Bumpus

Label: Bumpus

Release Date: March 21, 2018

Formats: Digital



Veteran Chicago soul band Bumpus returned in a big way this March, with its first release since 2007.  The band was a funk tour de force in the 2000s, but faced some personnel changes in the early 2010s that sidelined new recording projects.  The group still has performed locally over the past few years, and the band’s new lineup and infectious live energy is effectively captured on its Way Down Deep EP.



Bumpus is perhaps most well-known for its killer, high-energy live show, with one of the region’s funkiest rhythm sections and a horn line to match.  However, Way Down Deep showcases the band’s vocalists, James Johnston, Ava Fain and Tina Howell, whose layered, soulful voices drive the 6-song set. The band’s bread and butter is tightly knit guitar-driven funk tunes like the self-assured “Step Sure or Step Aside,” a challenge to “suckas” that is propelled by an active bass groove and soulful Hammond organ.  The EP’s highlight is the 2-part “Way Down Deep.” Part 1 is a solid lovin’ song infused with horn hits and funky drumming, but the song’s bridge gradually morphs into the spaced-out P-Funk territory that characterizes Part 2, with phased out vocals and instruments as well as an extended What’s Going On – style saxophone solo over gradually fading backing vocals.

It is a great benefit to Chicago’s music scene that Bumpus is back and bumpin’. Hopefully, Way Down Deep will usher in another decade of solid grooves and soulful songwriting.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Mike Wheeler Band – Turn Up!!

mike wheeler band

Title: Turn Up!!

Artist: Mike Wheeler Band

Label: Delmark

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 15, 2016



One of the busiest guitarists in Chicago, Mike Wheeler has an impressive resume, having played with such luminaries as Demetria Taylor, Nellie Travis, and Big James and the Chicago Playboys.  Serving as leader on his sophomore Delmark release, Turn Up!!, Wheeler leads his band through a sizzling 13 song set, full of tight arrangements and satisfying grooves.

Most of the material on Turn Up!! is straight-ahead blues. Numbers such as “Sweet Girl” showcase the band’s hard-earned solid groove, doubtless acquired over countless evenings working with similar funky blues numbers. However, this release isn’t an entirely tourist-in-the-city-for-the-weekend affair.  “Brand New Cadillac,” for instance, is built around heavy layered guitar riffs that wouldn’t have been out of place during Black Sabbath’s early days, with a stylish guitar solo to match.

While Wheeler is a solid singer and songwriter, the real stars of this record are the band’s chops and grooves.  The band dips into funky R&B on “Yeah!,” with bassist Larry Williams and Wheeler dropping in with solid and funky solos.  The band also excels at the slow burn, as on “Nothing Lasts Forever.” Their cover of Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” grooves hard, with solo breaks for Wheeler and Williams, who plays slap-bass bebop that lays deep in the funk groove. “Sad State of the World” provides another opportunity for soloing, as the nearly 8 minute long tune, heavily orchestrated in the style of The Band, gives Wheeler an opportunity to burn, even if—like many gestures at social commentary from musicians who don’t do it all the time—the lyrics are maudlin at best.

Overall, Turn Up!! Is a solid musical statement from a group of Chicago heavyweights.  Blues fans must check this out, and blues guitarists will want to cop some of Wheeler’s tasteful and flawlessly executed licks.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Toronzo Cannon – The Chicago Way

torenzo cannon_the chicago way

Title: The Chicago Way

Artist: Toronzo Cannon

Label: Alligator

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 26, 2016



Fresh off of an appearance at a private party for the Democratic National Committee held at  Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live, Chicago blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon has been busy representing his hometown. Since his last album, John the Conquer Root, he’s jumped over to Chicago’s other famed blues label, Alligator Records, which released his latest project. Fittingly titled The Chicago Way, the album features 11 self-penned songs that reflect Cannon’s life in the Windy City, using “timeless stories of common experiences in uncommon ways.”

The opening track, “The Pain Around Me,” is full of the pathos of growing up in a dystopian urban environment near the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago. Following a blistering guitar intro, Cannon sings: “Six kids on a corner up to no damn good, that’s six broken homes struggling in my neighborhood. You’ve got liquor stores everywhere on my side of town, I don’t want my kids to go outside ‘cause the thugs are hangin’ around.” Apologizing for painting such a grim portrait of inner city life, he sings in the chorus, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sing this song about the pain around me, but this is what I see, what I see.”

In the more traditional songs “Bad Contract” and “Walk It Off,” Cannon sings the blues about getting the short end of the stick when relationships go sour, with the latter song featuring some especially fine guitar solos. The following track, “Fine Seasoned Women,” opens with a swinging jazz intro before settling into a steady groove powered by Brother John Kattke on the Hammond B3 and a fine, tight horn section—superbly arranged by Kattke—that features Doug Corcoran on trumpet, Steve Eisen on tenor sax, and Robert Collazo on bari sax. This is definitely one of the best tracks on the album, especially when Cannon punches in the guitar solos, fitting perfectly into the groove.  Also adding to the mix are Larry Williams on bass and Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle on drums.

Another highlight on the album is “Chickens Comin’ Home to Roost,” featuring some of Cannon’s best guitar work and concluding with an extended blues-rock solo that goes out blazing in an inferno of psychedelic guitar riffs.  The heat continues with “Strength to Survive,” with Cannon digging deep into his soul on the vocals, then following up with the melancholy slow burner, “When Will You Tell Him About Me?” On the emotional closing track, “I Am,” about the multiple temptations and the choices one makes, Cannon is joined by singer Melon “Honeydew” Lewis and they bring down the house with a gospel fueled blues-rock masterpiece.

The Chicago Way offers contemporary, complex songs that are above and beyond standard blues fare, convincingly delivered by Toronzo Cannon with soulful vocals and searing blues-rock guitar virtuosity. This might well be the best blues album of 2016, and serves as proof that Cannon is poised to take over the crown as Chicago’s leading blues guitarist.


Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss


Numero Eccentric Soul Series: Sitting in the Park

eccentric soul_sitting in the park

Title: Eccentric Soul: Sitting in the Park

Artist: Various

Label: Numero

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: June 17, 2016


From 2002-2014, listeners to Chicago’s WHPK could tune in once a week and hear songs from some of the most obscure and neglected corners of the region’s soul music legacy, courtesy of an eccentric and obsessed fan and record collector, Bob Abrahamian. Not only did Abrahamian spin singles from his collection of about 35,000 platters, he also regularly interviewed the artists who performed a style of vocal-harmony music known as Chicago Sweet Soul.  Unfortunately, Abrahamian’s obsessive personality and declining mental health got the best of him, and he committed suicide in 2014.

In this anthology, Numero Records drew on Abrahamian’s record collection to produce a tribute both to the man and the music he so passionately championed.  The physical media (LP and CD) releases contain an outstanding booklet, with a detailed biographical essay by Numero’s Rob Sevier and brief biographies of the performers, along with transcript excerpts from Abrahamian’s interviews.  Sevier and Abrahamian’s sister, Jenny, picked the 16 tunes in this collection (12 selections on the LP version).

The music and audio quality vary, but overall the playing and singing range from competent to excellent.  On one hand, it’s clear why some of these artists ended up confined to minor radio play and short turns in Chicago area jukeboxes, but then again, it’s surprising how many competent to excellent soul singers and musicians were working in a single geographic area in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The disc-to-digital transfers, by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice at Peerless Mastering, are generally quite good, and the mastering engineers did not overuse digital restoration tools.

Abrahamian concentrated his collecting on something specific yet large-scale—acquiring all recordings by what he described as Chicagoland vocal-harmony soul groups. Judging by the size of his collection at the time of his death, it turned out to be a larger task than one would expect, or that he likely anticipated.

Stylistically, this music would be in line with 1970s mellow soul, not particularly funky and also not on the fringes of disco. It’s similar to the vocal-group output by more-mainstream artists of the time recording for Motown, Philadelphia International and Atlantic. There is an emphasis on the bass line, and strings are often used to augment the vocal harmonies.

Interestingly, Abrahamian’s radio show and interviews survive online, easily heard by any fan of Chicago Sweet Soul music (sittinginthepark.com). His legacy of loving, respecting and publicizing long-ago songs by obscure Chicagoland artists outlives him.

As is the case with most Numero anthologies, if you’re willing to tolerate a range of musical talent and performing competence, you will likely find some new favorites, and the informative booklet will teach you about the music of a place and time, and in this case the personal musical quest of an obsessive collector.



Reviewed by Tom Fine





The Real Sound of Chicago

Title: The Real Sound of Chicago: Underground Disco from the Windy City

Artist:  Various

Format:  CD, LP, MP3

Label:  BBE Records

Release date:  January 5, 2010

There is some irony in reviewing an album of disco from the Chicago area. This music, so often associated with New York, had its proverbial death in 1979 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a radio station’s “Disco Demolition” promotion. In spite of this event, The Real Sound of Chicago compilation is testament to the inability of a single act to destroy a cultural phenomenon; particularly one as pervasive as disco.

To create this album, Mike Grusane and Mike Cole, the owners of Mr. Peabody’s Records in Chicago, dug through their decades-old record collections to find the most representative, unique, and rare artifacts of Chicago’s dance music from 1976-1983. The result is a 23 track album that covers a wide territory from the funky to the soulful, to the gimmicky (“B.T. Boogie Terrestrial”) to the insightful (“School Days”). Following is the promotional video (courtesy of Mike Grusane):

For many, it may be initially difficult to understand what makes The Real Sound of Chicago different from the disco that emanated from other cities. Simply stated, the majority of the tracks on this compilation run a thin line between up-tempo R&B and the common disco sound of the period. A primary reason for this stems from the lack of major label backing, which helped develop the high-production East Coast sounds of the Salsoul Orchestra, The Village People, and K.C. & The Sunshine Band. Instead, the Chicago artists were often represented by small labels attempting to hop onto the disco bandwagon, resulting in a lack of strings and an emphasis on keyboard and percussion instruments. As a result, disco returns to its more soulful roots but with a funky twist, achieved by adding synthesizers to the mix for both the emulation of strings and organs.

All told, while the album succeeds in presenting the unique sound that draws strong lines between disco and Chicago house music, it falls short in certain respects. Firstly, the transfer quality of many of the tracks is, at times, poor. Particularly in the case of Carmen Amez’s “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again (Like I Fell In Love With You),” the high end of the track consistently distorts. While this is the case, it must be noted that the low budgets of these labels would result in the use of poor quality vinyl, which would produce albums that, with any extensive playing, would cause distortions of this type. In light of this, The Real Sound succeeds in presenting these tracks to a larger audience, who would have never heard them otherwise. Furthermore, it is also worth mentioning that The Moore Brothers’ “Bass Come Back” only existed in acetate form, making it a worthwhile gem in this set.

Secondly, a compilation of this sort demands extensive liner notes. Though I received this album as an MP3 download, I’ve discovered from other reviewers that the CD and LP versions also suffer from a lack of liner notes. While they are available on-line, I find this a poor substitute for readily available notes inserted in the packaging or as a file.

In spite of its sonic and packaging shortcomings, the tracks on The Real Sound of Chicago are generally excellent. As stated by the owners of Mr. Peabody’s Records, they have attempted to assemble a collection of above-average quality tracks that represent Chicago, and to that extent, they have succeeded. The tracks cover a wide range that will appeal to many tastes while still maintaining a cohesive sound and solid musical package. This compilation would best be suited for those who are curious about the gap between the “death” of disco and the birth of house, or those who simply want to hear some fun, uplifting disco tracks.

Reviewed by Gary Powell


Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music, by Ted Gioia. (W. W. Norton, October 20, 2008)

A comprehensive new history of the Delta blues by noted jazz author Ted Gioia, which journeys from Mississippi to Chicago while tracing the careers of many famous blues recording artists, including Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. This book will make a fine addition to any blues collection, and is recommended for public as well as academic libraries.

Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South, by Michelle R. Scott. (University of Illinois Press, August 2008).

The latest biography of Bessie Smith (1892-1937), the famous blues singer and entertainer who was originally known as the “queen of the blues” and gradually worked her way up to “empress.”  While this might not be the definitive biography (there are several others in print, most notably Chris Albertson’s Bessie),  it does include interesting discussions of the black entertainment industry, as well as the African American community within Chattanooga.

Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook, by Marva Carter. (Oxford University Press, September 2008)

Will Marion Cook was one of the most important African American composers in the early 20th century, and a comprehensive biography is long overdue. Carter draws upon  Cook’s unfinished autobiography as well as his wife Abbie’s memoir, and includes analyses of his most important works, including the musicals In Dahomey and Swing Along.  This is a must read for anyone interested in Black music and musical theater between 1890-1920.

Icons of R&B and Soul: An Encyclopedia of the Artists who Revolutionized Rhythm, by Bob Gulla (Greenwood Press, 2008).

A wonderful two volume survey of artists including Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ruth Brown, Sam Cooke, Etta James, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Temptations, Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Ike & Tina Turner, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Prince. Intended for public and school libraries, the volumes include selective bibliographies and discographies, as well as a multitude of side bars addressing everything from social issues to record labels, timelines, and chart topping hits.

The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture, by Tony Bolden. (Palgrave MacMillan, August, 2008)

In the words of our Director, Dr. Portia Maultsby, “This engaging book takes the reader on a journey across the multi-layered and multidisciplinary terrain of funk. This series of essays on music and the visual and literary arts reveal how ‘da funk’ represents innovation and aesthetic principles rooted in the Black vernacular, which defines the uniqueness of Black creativity. The Funk Era and Beyond is a must-read to understand funk as a philosophy, an attitude, a way of life, and more broadly, a cultural phenomena.”

A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AAMC and Experimental Music, by George E. Lewis. (University Of Chicago Press, May 2008).

This nearly 700 page tome documents the history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the avant-garde jazz scene in Chicago. A major contribution to jazz research, the book is scholarly yet highly readable and entertaining. The author also does a more than admirable job of entertwining the music scene with the racial and cultural aspects of the Chicago landscape.

Delmark 55th Anniversary CDs

Title: Delmark: 55 Years of Blues
Artists: Various
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.:  (CD + DVD)
Release date: 2008

Title: Delmark: 55 Years of Jazz
Artists: Various
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.:  (CD + DVD)
Release date:  2008

Bob Koester may have been selling records since the early 1950s, but the Chicagoan truly could be called one of America’s finest music archivists. Not simply content to sell records, initially out of his dorm room at St. Louis University and later out of storefronts, he began to seek out blues and jazz musicians from decades before to record them. His Delmar Records later became Delmark and his Jazz Record Mart is a mecca for all music lovers.

While others, including his protégé Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, sought to take the blues to wider commercial exposure, Koester remains the person who takes listeners- and more recently DVD viewers- into storied haunts such as Rosa’s, B.L.U.E.S., the Velvet Lounge and the Green Mill, simply because it’s where the music still lives.

These two anthologies, which also feature live recorded performances on DVD, showcase the support that Koester has had for underappreciated performers such as Curtis Fuller (who was featured on John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” nearly 40 years ago), tenorist Ari Brown, and singing blues bassist Willie Kent. Country bluesman Big Joe Williams was a major part of Delmark’s history as one of its first recording artists. His “Coffeehouse Blues” is included here.

Sometimes, these recordings were not as slick as those produced by the major labels. Instead, Koester saw value in releasing performances that importantly provide a window into the development of artists such as the West Side soul man Magic Sam, pianist Roosevelt Sykes, and guitarist Otis Rush. Again, they often take listeners into the same, sometimes gritty clubs Koester famously has explored most Saturday nights.

Without Koester, we perhaps may have never known Junior Wells, whose “Hoodoo Man Blues” remains one of the label’s biggest sellers. 55 Years of Blues features Wells’s 1975 live radio recording of “Little By Little” in Theresa’s Lounge. Today, Koester supports artists such as James Yancy “Tail Dragger” Jones and Francine Griffin, who may not have recorded decades earlier, but still are part of the musical legacy.

Koester and Delmark are also renowned for unearthing old master recordings and long lost vinyl, including those featured in these collections from Coleman Hawkins, J.B. Hutto, Sun Ra and Art Hodes. Commercial viability wasn’t the first concern. It was simply important to rescue and release recordings that otherwise would have gone silent.

Many grateful fans have Koester to thank for sharing his love for the music.

Posted by George Vlahakis

House Music- The Real Story

Title: House Music…The Real Story
Author: Jesse Saunders (with James Cummins)
Publisher: Publish America
Date: 2007
ISBN: 1-60474-001-9

House Music…The Real Story (172 p.) is equally an autobiography of Chicago house music pioneer Jesse Saunders and a history of the development of “house music,” the electronic dance music form that was first developed by club DJs in New York. Saunders was one of the first DJ’s to commercially release a house music single, and was largely responsible for the develop of the genre in Chicago. Over ten years ago, the City of Chicago recognized the contributions that Jesse and house music had made to the culture of the city by proclaiming July 17, 1997, as “Jesse Saunders and Pioneers of House Music Day” in Chicago.

Saunders’ “behind the music” tour through the early days of Chicago’s house music scene is especially important due to the current void of information on the genre (despite Mayor Richard M. Daley’s proclamation, nothing much seems to have happened since 1997 in terms of documenting or celebrating house music). For lovers of Chicago house music, Jesse’s memoir is an intriguing look at how this assorted and colorful cast of characters– including Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, among others–fell into creating a new genre of music. Following is additional information from the official press release:

“Jesse Saunders’ story is one of the most important in the history of popular culture. From his hometown of Chicago, Jesse created the first original House music record and launched the House music movement across the land. Eventually, his style of music would come to sell millions of records and CDs, take over the popular consciousness of millions of kids across the earth and cement the electronic revolution in music. Written with author James Cummins, this autobiography tells the story of how it all happened. From the streets of Chicago to the biggest music labels in Los Angeles, California, it follows Jesse Saunders as he recreates the musical landscape of America. Touching on the celebrity culture of the 1980s and ’90s and into the twenty-first century, you will read many shocking things about some of your favorite artists. Jesse Saunders is an artist whose influence on modern music will never be forgotten.”

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For those who aren’t as familiar with the formation of house music in the 1980s, Jesse’s account is a worthy introduction. House Music…The Real Story represents what the genre needs more of–pioneers willing to share their own stories.

Posted by fredara mareva

Dead Letter Perfect


Title: Dead Letter Perfect
Artist: SoulStice
Label: Wandering Soul Records
Catalog No: WNSOUL009
Date: 2007


SoulStice is one of the more talented hip hop artists native to Chicago. His knowledge of both the books and the street is evident in his meaningful lyrics, but in case you had any doubts, he also earned both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from the University of Illinois in Electrical and Computer Engineering. By utilizing his skills behind the microphone and the mixing board, SoulStice has written and recorded his own music, driven by his passion for hip hop.

After generating a significant following in Chicago and the Midwest, SoulStice moved to the Washington, D.C. area where he has given many performances and made several appearances on mix-tapes. He has since earned a large following on the East Coast, and has had the opportunity to work with Oddisee (a producer who has worked with several hip hop artists including Talib Kweli and Jazzy Jeff) and Bring It Back, a production team out of Virginia. SoulStice has also given several performances in the UK, where he has a respectable fan base, and has shared the stage with several prominent artists, including Wu-Tang Clan and John Legend. His sound has frequently been described as a blend of Chicago soul and East Coast boom-bap.

SoulStice hit the top of both college radio and club charts in 2003 with his first single, “the Melody,” from his debut album, North by Northwest: Solid Ground, which he publicized, marketed and distributed all on his own. He followed up this banger with the double-single, “Always / The Quickening,” which topped both college radio and club charts in 2005. Although SoulStice has spent some time away from the Windy City, there is no doubt of his Chicago roots in his latest album, Dead Letter Perfect, which was released in 2007.

Dead Letter Perfect kicks off with an old-school vibe on “Southside Ride,” clearly representing SoulStice’s Chi-town origins in the track’s title. If his cunning wordplay and rhymes aren’t impressive enough, the excellent production and soulful sounds certainly seal the deal. As the name implies, the song is smooth and excellent for chilling or taking a drive. When track two arrives SoulStice rhymes, “Hey! You can take it high as you wanna go, I can see us rise with the vibe and it’s wonderful,” in the appropriately named “High as You Wanna.” The faster tempo and brilliant imagery of this track makes you feel like you are right there, face-to-face with SoulStice, listening to his story, proving the claim of his rhyme to be true – it is wonderful.

SoulStice then progressively slows it down a little bit with the tracks “Be Perfect” and “Book Of Days,” in which his lyrics draw a picture of his experiences in your mind. Accordingly, in “Be Perfect” SoulStice rhymes, “I gotta vendetta, and a story to tell; it’s a little bit of heaven if you’re going through hell,” and “I am just getting started, got no time for spittin’ garbage,” in “Book Of Days.” The dark beat and sound of the fifth track perfectly matches the insightful lyrics of “World’s On Fire,” which features Haysoos.

In the next two tracks, “Not Perfect” and “Be Strong,” SoulStice goes back to rhyming about life and hardships, with lyrics that should really hit home with most listeners. In “Dreamer,” the eighth track, he rhymes, “They say that I’m a dreamer, I gotta rhyming fever; I keep speaking through the speaker so these lines will reach-ya.” SoulStice continues to lay it out as he sees it in “Like This, The Time and Get It Right,” with each line leaving you gripped to his story. “Still Love,” the twelfth track, includes several cleverly worded rhymes about life in Chicago such as: “I’m from the Chi’ where the basements at, where it’s so hot and so cold the pavement cracks.” The next track, “No Chance,” at first seems to be a typical boasting track declaring SoulStice’s elite status and permanent residence in the hip hop world, but a close listen to the lyrics reveals a motivational message as well: “It’s not about where you start, it’s what you choose to become.”

The album concludes with an upbeat finale on the tracks “Recognize” and “The Quickening.” SoulStice declares this is the perfect album, but that is up to the world of hip hop listeners to decide. There is no doubt, however, that this album is well written, recorded and produced and that SoulStice is a very talented lyricist.

Listening to Dead Letter Perfect leaves you with a lot to think about. The complex rhymes and wordplay are filled with imagery and tell the listener a story through SoulStice’s socially aware, world-conscious lyrics. His choruses stick in your head without being too catchy, and you’ll want to listen to these tracks over and over again to capture all the complexities in the verses. If you like socially conscientious hip hop and creative word-play, you will really enjoy this album, but if you’re looking for a generic club-banger type production, this may not be for you. Dead Letter Perfect is an album for thinkers, but if you’re in the mood for dancing, throw on some top 40.

Track Listing:

1. Southside Ride (produced by Oddisee)
2. High As You Wanna (produced by Analogic)
3. Be Perfect (produced by K-Salaam & Beatnick)
4. Book of Days (produced by Oddisee)
5. World’s On Fire featuring Haysoos (produced by Oddisee)
6. Not Perfect featuring Olivier Daysoul (produced by M-phazes)
7. Be Strong (produced by SBe Audiologist)
8. Dreamer (produced by SBe Audiologist)
9. Like This (produced by Oddisee)
10. The Time featuring Stef (produced by SBe Audiologist)
11. Get It Right featuring Oddisee and Olivier Daysoul (produced by Oddisee)
12. Still Love (produced by M-phazes)
13. No Chance featuring Wordsworth (produced by Analogic)
14. Recognize (produced by Bring it Back)
15. The Quickening” (produced by Oddisee)

Posted by David Goldberg

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)

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

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

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