Telling You About the Blues, in Texas, Atlanta and Detroit

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 10.06.11 in Spotlights

Let Me Tell You About The Blues: Texas

Various Artists

Let me tell you about Let Me Tell You About the Blues, a series of three-disc packages (several of which are available on eMusic) that attempts to trace the evolution of the music by focusing on geographic areas. Results are mixed, as they almost always are on compilations, in this case due largely to the fact that anything recorded in a specific city or region is defined as belonging to that area. To cite one of the most egregious cases, the Texas volume includes a track by Robert Johnson, who recorded in San Antonio and Dallas, but whose distinctly Delta style differs considerably from the distinctly Texas guitar sound.

Still, this series, including volumes not yet available to eMusic, is in many ways a noble effort, and there’s much of merit to consider. The Texas package is a fine mix of the obvious (Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins) and the unexpected (Andy Boy, Black Boy Shine, Soldier Boy Houston), and it does for the most part illuminate how both the jazzy Texas electric guitar and uptown horn charts came to define Lone Star blues. But for now, two volumes – Atlanta and Detroit – stand out particularly well, and both for the same reason: Until now, neither scene has been explored in this manner in anywhere near the detail of the others.

In the early days of recording, Atlanta was clearly a blues center for the nimble sound that prevailed all along the southeast coast. It was called Piedmont blues, a fingerpicking style in which the thumb provides a bass-y rhythm pattern and the forefinger (usually) creates the syncopated melody on the treble strings. The dance style basically adapts ragtime (and stride) piano motifs to the guitar, and in its early-20th century heyday it was much more popular among African-Americans than Delta or Texas blues. The fountainhead for the style was apparently Savannah “Dip” Shepard, who was more inclined towards gospel music but nonetheless taught her technique to her blues-loving son Curley Weaver (“No No Blues,” “Brown Skin Woman”), one of the unsung heroes of Piedmont guitar, as well as to brothers Charlie Lincoln (“Jealous Hearted Blues”) and Barbecue Bob (“Barbecue Blues,” “She Shook Her Gin”), also known as Charlie and Robert Hicks. But the man who took these blues to their greatest heights, as a singer, songwriter and picker, was doubtless the 12-string master Blind Willie McTell, who is represented here with several tracks, both by himself and with others. Piedmont blues held on in Atlanta until after WWII, when the rise of R&B brought pianists like Little Richard and Piano Red to the fore, along with vocal stylists like Richard’s inspiration Billy Wright and Chuck Willis, who worked with jump bands that included horn sections.

Detroit didn’t really have a style of its own, but like St. Louis, the Motor City was a proving ground for artists ultimately bound for Chicago and also took in a lot of the overflow from the Windy City. Boogie woogie pianist Big Maceo (Merriweather) arrived in Detroit in 1923, and polished his craft, which featured his thunderous left hand under his only-slightly-more restrained right, on Hastings Street in the Black Bottom district. He went to Chicago in 1941 to begin his recording career as the father of modern blues piano, but later made forays back to Detroit to record the likes of “Worried Man Blues No. 2″ and “Without You My Life Don’t Mean a Thing.” But guitarists like Calvin Frazier stayed on equal footing with the piano pounders until they took over in 1948. That’s when John Lee Hooker, who’d arrived in Detroit about five years earlier, launched his career with “Boogie Chillen,” which initiated a return to rural sounds by topping black charts for months. Hooker, represented here by six tracks, became the only major bluesman identified with Detroit, but there were others who left their mark on the national blues scene. Eddie Kirkland, who favored open chords and played with his thumb rather than a pick, backed Hooker from 1949-62. On his own records, like “It’s Time for Lovin’ to Be Done” and “No Shoes,” he evolved a more muscular version of Hook’s sound. John Brim may be more identified with Chicago, but his first record was the Detroit-bred “Strange Man,” with his wife Grace singing and Big Maceo rocking the 88s; Brim (who also appears on this set as Slim Pickens) holds his own on guitar against Big Maceo on “Bus Driver.” And Eddie “Guitar” Burns isn’t the most original musician, but his three tracks show him to have mastered Chicago guitar and harp styles.

There’s also a lot of variety here: novelties and semi-novelties like early pianist Detroit Count’s drowsy, deliberate “Hastings Street Opera, Parts 1 and 2,” Washboard Willie’s “Washboard Blues (Part 1) and One String Sam’s “I Need a $100.00;” swashbuckling R&B sax instrumentals like “Thirty-Five Thirty” by the Paul Williams Sextette and similarly swinging jump-verging-on-rock by T.J. Fowler and Wild Bill Moore; “Pet Milk Blues,” which features the dueling harmonicas of Walter Mitchell and Robert Mitchell plus Boogie Woogie Red on piano; the guitar and harmonica grooves of Robert “Baby Boy” Warren; Laverne Baker (Bea Baker here) singing “I Want a Lavender Cadillac” with Maurice King and the Wolverines, and the great lost blues shouter Little Miss Sharecropper, whose desires are more modest on “I Want to Rock.” There’s even the very first record by Jackie Wilson, who released the operatic, acrobatic “The Rainy Day Blues” under the moniker Sonny Wilson. Now that’s what you call a scene, even if it was soon surpassed by the rise of Motown and countless other Detroit soul and funk labels.