Midnite Blues Party
Rock 'n' Roll City
John Lee Hooker was almost a pop star once. Actually, he came close a few times, but the first was with "Boom Boom" in 1962. A top-20 hit on Billboard's R & B charts, it even saw limited action toward the bottom of the pop listings, where Delta bluesmen were seldom found (the Animals did a little better with the song in 1964). WLS, at the time the giant in white Chicago pop radio, had the song in regular rotation. Hooker's backing band was a gang of moonlighting Motown session men who'd sound very different the next year behind Martha & the Vandellas; "Heat Wave" was a much bigger hit, but the audience for the two songs was the same.
Before the British invasion taught white Americans to revere the blues, it wasn't just folklore to be preserved and studied. It was a strain of popular music on the jukebox like anything else, and there was still space for somebody like Hooker, if he presented himself right. And he was trying: about half of everything he recorded for Vee-Jay during this period was electric and up-tempo. Of course, even back then there were purists who valued the earlier down-home solo bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Son House. Some performers, including Hooker, were savvy enough to switch between the two styles, plugging in or unplugging their guitars depending on whom they were playing for.
The blues didn't exist in a vacuum. If a ripple was made in pop music, the blues felt it. There was too much going on for blues performers to remain static, especially with rock 'n' roll's emergence from the blues still a recent development. Is Elvis Presley the hot new thing? Next thing you know there's about 20 black blues guys adding a slight country-and-western tinge to their sound, cutting rockabilly 45s like Magic Sam's "21 Days in Jail." Perez Prado and other Latin stars elbowing their way in? Suddenly a whole bunch of blues performers are making with the maracas and the timbales, like Jimmy Reed on "Roll and Rhumba." Little Richard all the rage? Lowell Fulson records "Rock This Morning" in direct response. Early 60s recordings by Albert Collins, Freddy King, and Long John Hunter sound like bluesy takes on surf and frat rock. (When King's label repackaged one of his records as Freddy King Goes Surfin' several white rock 'n' roll bands added his songs to their set lists.)
Artists like this weren't consciously trying to broaden their demographic or keep an endangered genre alive. They were just responding to what was going on. Occasionally one of these forward-looking blues guys would manage to crack the pop charts, like Slim Harpo with "Baby Scratch My Back" in 1966. Some of the ones that wouldn't wound up on Midnite Blues Party, a collection (released last year by the Toronto blues label Electro-Fi) that documents a time when R & B really was a combination of rhythm and blues--and the combination kept on changing.
Sides like these seem to get short shrift on blues reissue albums, although they've had an underground rep for years with rockabilly, surf, and garage freaks. When they do turn up it's on odd comps like the multivolume "Stompin'" and "Black Rock & Roll" (later retitled "Savage Kick") series, which play up the rock 'n' roll angle. Earlier this year, after the blues community's warm reception of Midnite Blues Party, Electro-Fi put out a second volume that doesn't really have much to do with the first--it goes all the way back to the jump-blues performers of the 40s and 50s. Although there'd be no rock or soul without the jump-blues crowd, the new music was still a foggy notion when they were recording. There wasn't yet a sense of this newfangled style that would have to be dealt with, whether you got into it or got around it.
The 27 selections on volume one, recorded between roughly 1956 and 1969, were meant to be jukebox and radio hits, danced to at house parties and heard on the radio between toothpaste ads. These weren't library-sanctioned field recordings, but they're as raw as anything Alan Lomax ever taped out in the sticks. The difference is that Lomax's recordings are snapshots of an era that was nearly gone; the songs on Midnite Blues Party are Super-8s of a culture in motion.
The best-known act here is probably Chicago's own Baby Huey & the Babysitters, who are heard jacking Junior Wells's "Messin' With the Kid" up to a twist tempo. A few others had some marginal fame: Roy Lee Johnson wrote "Mr. Moonlight," which he recorded in 1962 as a member of Dr. Feelgood & the Interns; among its fans were the Beatles, whose cover came out two years later.
All of these artists sound like they've got an eye on the charts, though they're using different strategies to get there. The credits say that Jim Sweeney's novelty rocker "The Buzzard & the Owl" was recorded in 1959 in New York, but the backing vocals sound suspiciously like Nashville's Jordanaires. Dorothy Berry gets off some outlandish Tina Turner screams on "You're Driving Me Crazy," and Little Joe Hinton comes close to ska with "Let's Start a Romance." Randy Hobbs, Little Grier, Buddy Lamp, and Blue Bull would have sounded right at home singing with Magic Sam, Otis Rush, or any of the other Chicago bluesmen from the west-side soul-blues scene. Organs were just coming into vogue when the earliest of these songs were recorded, and more than one track has a funky Hammond or Farfisa wailing away. A screaming harmonica finesses its way around a jump-blues horn section on Sonny Harper's "Lonely Stranger"--it's a rarely heard combination but it feels natural here. Birmingham Junior's harmonica-driven "You're Too Bad" sounds like where Little Walter would have gone if he'd tried his hand at rock 'n' roll. You get harmonica players who think they're saxophonists, guitarists who seem spiritually torn between B.B. King and Duane Eddy, old-sounding voices singing pop for teenagers, young singers knocking themselves out on prehistoric 12-bar blues numbers. Everybody's trying out new roles and winding up in unexpected places.
Although blues was clearly losing ground during the era covered by Midnite Blues Party, the attempts at modernization don't come off as desperate. When Little Daddy Walton adopts an up-tempo rock 'n' roll groove for "Spend My Money," it doesn't sound like anyone had to sell him on the idea. The same can't be said, for instance, of the acid-rock albums Chess got Muddy Waters to make in the late 60s, or for that matter the dance remixes of R.L. Burnside tracks released by Fat Possum in the 90s, all of which feel awkward and outlandish. Waters wouldn't try to duplicate those sounds in concert, and Burnside doesn't. But hearing Little Daddy do his thing, you can easily imagine "Spend My Money" as the climax of his live set.
While this musical cross-fertilization was going on, the young man then known as Guitar Eddy Harrington was taking it all in. Originally from Birmingham, by the mid-50s he was playing around Chicago's south side and listening to country-style R & B like Chuck Berry's "Oh Baby Doll." Renamed Clear Waters (as opposed to Muddy; he'd take his current name within a few years), he cut a rocking series of Berry-flavored tracks for Atomic-H, a label run by his uncle, the Reverend Houston H. Harrington. (You can hear some of them on the Delmark compilation Chicago Ain't Nothin' but a Blues Band.) Even after he recast himself as a straight bluesman in the 70s, just about every one of his albums had a token rockabilly song on it. But on the new Rock 'n' Roll City, recorded with masked surf rockers Los Straitjackets, he flips the formula around: it's basically a rockabilly album with a token blues song.
Clearwater's got a peculiar southern twang in his voice (reminiscent of Eddie C. Campbell's) that goes well with Straitjacket Eddie Angel's chugging rhythm guitar. As you'd guess, some songs have that Chuck Berry sound (like "Hillbilly Blues," a remake of one of the old Atomic-H singles), but "Lonesome Town" (an Angel original, not the Ricky Nelson hit) recalls Link Wray, "You're Humbuggin' Me" has a jump-blues feel, and "Before This Song Is Over" is a swamp-pop stroll with a Fats Domino groove. The lone straight blues is the closer, "Good Times Are Coming," but it's hardly by the numbers: Clearwater sings it accompanied only by Steve Conn on organ.
It should be interesting to see how blues listeners--who, if they listen to rock at all, tend to favor FM staples like Eric Clapton or Bonnie Raitt--react to this one. Rock 'n' Roll City harks back to the late 50s, when young white rockers in Memphis were trying to sound like Chicago bluesmen and, quiet as it was kept, some of the younger black bluesmen were returning the compliment. Today, the blues influence in rockabilly has become increasingly marginalized; the newer roots acts, still hungover from the swing craze of a few years back, are more focused than ever on country styles, especially western swing. This isn't inherently a bad thing, but they often seem afraid of getting too wild and messing up their matching cowboy outfits. Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, an excellent LA band, seemed to be headed for such a rut before righting themselves on their recent albums Night Tide and It's Time! But roots bands as good (and stylistically varied) as Big Sandy's or Deke Dickerson's various projects are the exception--most can only pray they get it together like Clearwater does here. Now that this veteran has finally revisited his old turf, I'd love to see some copycat super sessions--I'm waiting for somebody to introduce Lonnie Brooks to local roots and rockabilly bassist Jimmy Sutton, who might persuade him to look back at the swampy rockers he recorded as Guitar Junior in the 50s.
Though the purist aesthetic dominates public perception, a more eclectic, inclusive notion of the blues has persisted quietly all along. Apparently no one ever told the late Mack Simmons (who made his last few records for Electro-Fi) that blues harpists aren't supposed to cover songs by the Ohio Players or Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Johnny Laws isn't above doing a version of Marty Robbins's 1961 country crossover "Don't Worry" at his club gigs. A few years ago I wandered into the 5105 Club, a bar way out on the dark end of North Avenue, just as the band (I forget who it was) started into Barry White's "Practice What You Preach," smack in the middle of what was apparently a blues set otherwise. Stan Mosley and Lee Morris have added hip-hop touches to their soul-blues sound. As local blues singer Pat Smillie once observed about black blues venues, "They just seem to be a lot more open to different styles. You might hear somebody bust out on an old hillbilly number. They'll only do one, but you know what? They're gonna do it! Or an old Fats Domino song. You just don't get that at all on the north side--it's all shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, slow blues, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle."
Meanwhile the younger performers--black and white--on the white blues-club circuit complain about some traditionalist "blues police" holding them back; calling themselves "new blue bloods," they'll throw the occasional Hendrix cover into their sets. It's definitely different from the usual 12-bar boogie, but already this modest rebellion seems to have frozen into cliche. At the 2002 Chicago Blues Festival, I came across a band of middle-aged African-American street musicians that kept breaking into the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" every time young whites stopped to watch. When the crowd was slim, they stuck with the kind of soul-blues popular in black taverns, but when the next flock of white kids in tie-dye stopped by flashing money, all of a sudden they were back to a one-song repertoire--"Roadhouse Blues." Even Muddy's psychedelic phase was more sincere than this.
However, as a local musician told me once, looking for good music in these situations is akin to looking for fine art at a shooting gallery. It's not hard to find better examples of opening up the blues to new ideas. Working soul-blues bands are doing it every night in clubs on the south and west sides. Eddy Clearwater's been doing it for 45 years or so. And all those relative unknowns on Midnite Blues Party--they may have done it only once, but you know what? They did it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David McClister.