With a subject as wide as music, it should come as no great surprise that a ridiculous number of indispensible volumes are currently stuffing library shelves and cluttering up the coffee tables of connoisseurs all over this tirelessly spinning globe. But on top of that mountainous stack of worthy texts sits a few select titles that simply inhabit a class all by themselves; Robert Palmer’s DEEP BLUES, Nick Tosches’ UNSUNG HEROES OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL, A. B. Spellman’s FOUR LIVES IN THE BEBOP BUSINESS, Peter Guralnick’s FEEL LIKE GOING HOME and SWEET SOUL MUSIC, Valerie Wilmer’s AS SERIOUS AS YOUR LIFE, Greil Marcus’ INVISIBLE REPUBLIC (aka THE OLD WEIRD AMERICA)and Clinton Heylin’s FROM THE VELVETS TO THE VOIDOIDS are amongst the books in this stratum all possessing the three essential ingredients, namely depth of knowledge, controlled passion for the subject and an abundance of prose skill, that ultimately combine to form a very rare and valuable thing. Another entry in this singular zone is IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS by Robert Gordon, a sort of celebratory alternate musical history of the city that covers everything from blues survivor Furry Lewis to lunatic DJ Dewey Phillips to southern hipster/musician extraordinaire Jim Dickinson to horribly underrated post-bop pianist Phineas Newborn to u-ground rock scene mainstays Alex Chilton and Tav Falco. Charles “Packy” Axton also gets essential documentation in the book, and in fact the pages of MEMPHIS served as my introduction to this true outsider legend. But it’s a cinch that millions have been touched by the guy’s sphere of influence even if the majority of those listeners haven’t a clue to the significance of his name. For starters, tenor saxophonist Axton’s mother Estelle and Uncle Jim Stewart founded Stax records, one of the cornerstones upon which the foundation of 20th Century music is based. And anybody that’s grooved to the delirious instrumental nutriment of “Last Night” by The Mar-Keys has heard the quality of his horn. A notoriously hard drinker (dead in ’74 from cirrhosis of the liver) with a difficult temperament to match, a big part of his posthumous reputation is how he relegated himself to the margins of a musical legacy, but an equally interesting aspect of his story is how he played a role in the demolition of the barrier of segregation through everyday associations across the color line and did so with nary a trace of saintliness or righteousness. People like Charles Axton are often retroactively assessed with the descriptor “colorblind”, but that sort of rubs me the wrong way. I can’t help but feel it proposes many integrationist individuals (both well known and marginal) as being somehow unable to really identify cultural and racial differences in their fellow man. In the case of Packy Axton however it’s pretty obvious that the dude was simply out searching for the life-affirming variety (also known as kicks) that is so often desired by young, open-minded, artistically inclined individuals; he wasn’t trying to change the world or make a statement, he was simply grabbing life by the horns. But Axton did actually end up making a statement (of sorts), and it’s just been issued by the fine folks at the Light in the Attic label as LATE LATE PARTY 1965-67. Its 17-songs add up to a huge sum that serves as essential augmentation for any right thinking individual’s collection of ringers form the vaults of Stax and Hi. Featuring tunes released under the names Martinis, L.H. & the Memphis Sounds, The Pac-Keys, Stacey Lane, and The Packers, with this last a rapidly assembled band whose “Hole in the Wall” was Axton’s second brief collusion with chart success, reaching #5 R&B (and #43 Pop) in 1965. As his second most popular song, “Hole in the Wall” sheds important light on Packy’s performative range; recorded in Los Angeles (where Axton had bailed after tiring of the difficulties with Uncle Jim) with Steve Cropper, Al Jackson and Booker T. hisself (all out touring with the Stax Revue), the song toes a suave line between the M.G.’s and the sort of non-crap pop-jazz proffered during this incredibly fertile period by guys like Ramsey “The In Crowd” Lewis. And I’m happy to report that “Hole in the Wall” sticks out not a bit qualitatively on LATE LATE PARTY, the album cohering into a very satisfying package. The Martinis and The Pac-Keys (featuring members of the superb Bar-Kays of “Soul Finger” fame) take up over half of the LPs tracks and to fine effect, with the former group leaning somewhat toward M.G.’s style riff as groove as eternal love and the latter hitting upon the horn based gorgeousness that later defined the post-Axton Mar-Key horns (who backed up Otis dontcha know). But there are all sorts of twists in store; “Hung Over”, a tight little frat-party intsro by The Martinis holds some of the goofus spirit of fellow Memphis weirdo Travis Wammack, L.H. and the Memphis Sounds shoot for a Motown-esque vocal group dynamic and score with ease, The left-field kazoo solo on The Pac-Keys’ “Hip Pocket” just oozes a post-4AM in the studio screw it let’s do it verve, and singer Stacy Lane rumbles like Edwin Starr on the locomotive “No Ending”. LATE LATE PARTY 1965-67 is simply a no-brainer acquisition for serious soul collectors but it’ll more than spike the juice of mere dabblers. In fact, it might just turn those dabblers into flat-out aficionados. What a nice possibility.
It’s fitting that the Mississippi blues, a form largely born from severity and often performed as a means of emotional survival in the harsh Jim Crow environment, should be one of this county’s most lasting cultural artifacts. And many folks automatically equate the blues of Mississippi with the region of the Delta, which is easy to do since the dominant innovators from the state (Charlie Patton, Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson) all hailed from that region, but this associative jump doesn’t accurately encompass the sheer bounty of what transpired within those borders in the early portion of the 20th century. For a strong taste of the state’s diversity of style please investigate Yazoo Records’ 1967 compilation MISSISSIPPI BLUES 1927-1941, a truly mind-blowing document that’s just been given a fine repress on 180 gram vinyl. Yes, each of the abovementioned heavyweights is included here, with the mesmerizing and iconoclastic styles of the four being simultaneously buffered and accentuated by a sweet slew of lesser known but crucial names. The proceedings start strong and suitably uncharacteristically with “Gang of Brown Skin Women” by Harvey Hull and Long Cleve Reed (aka the Down Home Boys), playing a tune from ’27 that’s described in Bradley Sweet’s liner notes (through the source of Skip James) as spanning as far back as the early 1800s, though the song is boldly outfitted with a then up to date (if still decidedly rural) veneer replete with scat-singing gestures and a general good-time post Vaudeville atmosphere that feels more in line with the general M.O. of Memphis. The song is an obvious and delicious bit of lively fantasizing that would’ve fit right into the songster repertoire of Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the Memphis Jug Band, or even fellow homeboys the Mississippi Sheiks. In other words, great stuff for parties and barbeques. Fiddle-man Henry “Son” Sims’ is best known today for being a key accompanist for Charlie Patton (and later for pre-Chicago Muddy Waters), but on the buoyant if keening “Be True Be True Blues” it’s Patton backing up Sims to beautiful result. Over the years I’ve been unable to shake the song’s unschooled street-corner vibe from reminding me of unpolished pre-blues glory as peddled by such legends as Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas. You however might feel differently. It’s with “I’m Leavin’ Town” by William Harris that things start to take a turn for the familiar. With guitar assistance by Joe Robinson this masterful duet is at once among the greatest and most slept on of all prewar blues cuts, a loose, raw, shit-talking beast of a tune that’s justifies the price of MISSISSIPPI BLUES all by itself. That Harris is essentially a historical cipher has undoubtedly kept his legacy loitering out in the margins of blues history, and that’s a damn drag. He doesn’t have enough tracks to fill out a full release under his own name (only seven of his sides remain with us), and while his material is suitably tough it does lack the doom-laden starkness that’s turned those lingering four names into such mythic legends. One great reason for reissuing an LP with tracks that have subsequently been filtered onto hundreds of releases (at least) since this inaugural compiling way back in ’67 is how it gives Harris a fresh chance to be heard by as many people as possible through simple association with far more prominent artists like House and Johnson. That Harris is followed by two ass-flaying tracks by Skip James is just gravy. With his strained and stressed and at times harshly feminine vocal delivery weaving through the threatening aura of his playing style, James has long been one of the most fascinating and stylistically extreme artists in the vast sphere of the blues. Once the ear has adjusted to his unique delivery and emotional heft his work can become absolutely entrancing; it’s the epitome of Robert Palmer’s concept of “deep blues”, and it could easily be used as the dictionary antonym of “easy listening”. The music of Skip James requires attention and commitment, but it also offers a huge reward. Even in a genre that always seems to flirt with the monochromatic (which is frankly part of the music’s appeal), nothing else sounds like him. What a rare and wonderful thing. The three tracks included here by Delta behemoth Charlie Patton are characteristically varied, for he was a consummate performer slash entertainer and simply one of the most important names in all of American Music. The Delta blues basically starts with him. Just think of it this way; without him there would’ve been no Howlin’ Wolf, and without that raspy giant there’d be no Rolling Stones or Beefheart, and that’s just for starters. A truly scary thought. Patton’s “Hang it on the Wall” ( a redo of his earlier “Shake it and Break it”) is a pure throw-down of party-time tomfoolery that surely raised many a house into pure rocking frenzies all over the region, his “Mean Black Moan” features the high-pitched bow of “Son” Sims along with bucket loads of surface noise (just think of it as ambiance, okay?) and the man working through some typically intense love-ache, but it’s the perfect balance of mood and dynamics resonating throughout “Pea Vine Blues” that really cooks up the gusto in my crib. Though her discography is scant (a mere six sides) Geeshie Wiley nonetheless ranks as one of the greatest female singers/players in the entirety of the rural blues. Beyond her actual recordings little is known of her beyond rumor; she might’ve came from the city of Natchez, maybe she was involved with Papa Joe McCoy, perhaps she married Casey Bill Weldon, etc. What’s indisputable is the quality of her work. On “Eagles on a Half” Wiley combines crisp, percussive guitar with a relaxed vocal style that gains emotional resonance through her ease of delivery. To elaborate, she eschews the often piercing tones of many early urban blues singers, with this lack of urbanity ironically making her sound far more modern. If almost nothing is known of Wiley than Mattie Delaney is a complete blank. Obviously influenced by Charlie Patton, “Tallahatchie River Blues” shows her wielding a strong, smooth guitar hand and a voice that while more assertive than Wiley’s (as befitting her range) still integrates quite well with her instrumental ability. 12-string guitarist John Byrd comes from the songster tradition and unsurprisingly for that lifestyle he moved around the country quite a bit. The majority of his work was documented in Kentucky, and that’s where this album’s “Billy Goat Blues” was recorded. This marks him (along with William Harris who moved to Chicago in the 30s) as one of the first Mississippi blues transplants. That his style differs so stridently from the Delta mold is an appealing complication. Bobby Grant’s “Nappy Head Blues” from ’27 is so reminiscent of Son House that its existence as a supposed case of parallel development is somewhat confounding (House apparently had no idea who Grant was). As a brilliant bit of undiluted Delta science, it makes total sense to follow it in the playing order with House his own regal self, heard here circa 1941 with “Delta Blues”. The jump in time is illustrative. This is the only track on the record to feature harmonica (superbly rendered by Leroy Williams) and shows the big jump the Delta style had made before taking another grand leap into the city of Chicago in the tail end of the decade. At the point of “Delta Blues”’ recording Muddy Waters was still on Stovall’s Plantation, and to play these tracks by Grant and House immediately before Muddy’s “Walkin’ Blues” from 1950 (a standard first recorded by House) is to get hipped quick to one deep stream of country to city developments. But another marker of rural to urban transmogrification is represented through the figure of Robert Johnson. The dark mythic aura that persists in surrounding this most famous of Delta artists continues to somewhat obscure the fact that he was simply an amazing one-man synthesizer of the form. Initially a protégé of House, he was also undoubtedly influenced by the more citified guitar playing of Lonnie Johnson for just one example, and this blend of styles can be clearly heard on this LP’s closer “Dead Shrimp Blues”. If Johnson was vital in the alchemy of down home and uptown modes (keep in mind that John Hammond wanted him for his first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in December of ’38 [where he would’ve shared the stage with amongst others The Count Basie Orchestra] but unfortunately he was already cold in the ground), he wisely knew better than to soften the dark swagger of the Delta; the “shrimp” of this tune refers not to tasty crustaceans but to what Bradley Sweet describes as harlots, a term of slang already archaic at the time of Johnson’s recording. That makes the line “woke up this morning/all my shrimps was dead and gone” rather menacing to say the least, and it’s a particularly apropos way to end the album. MISSISSIPPI BLUES 1927-1941 isn’t the last word on its subject (check out Yazoo’s MISSISSIPPI BLUES MASTERS 1927-1935 for a more extensive look and with almost no overlap), but for many ears (like mine) it essentially was the first word. It’s great to have it back in the racks.