James Cotton, “Blast-Furnace Harmonica” Of The Blues

With Muddy Waters on “Got My Mojo Working” (1966) – Watch on YouTube

James Cotton (aka “Mr. Superharp”) was a constant presence in the blues for over 70 years.

As a boy, he was mentored by the great Sonny Boy Williamson II. In the early 50s, he recorded a few of his own discs at Sun Records in Memphis before signing on for a 12-year stint with Muddy Waters.

In 1966, he formed the James Cotton Blues Band, just in time to ride the blues-fueled wave of rock music. He shared stages with megastars like Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.

In 1977 he reunited with Muddy Waters on a Johnny Winter-produced album, Hard Again. It won a Grammy for best ethnic or traditional recording. Cotton would be honored by the Grammys again for Deep In The Blues, a 1996 album he recorded for VerveHis final album, Cotton Mouth Blues, recorded for Alligator Records in 2013, was nominated for a Grammy. He was honored at Lincoln Center in 2010 and received the B.B. King Award in 2015 at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.

“I guess I was born with the blues, and I don’t know nothing else but the blues.” –James Cotton (July 1, 1935-March 16, 2017)

“Cotton Crop Blues” on Spotify

 

 

 

Mose Allison, Jazz and Blues Piano Player with a Rock Fan Club

“I Don’t Worry About a Thing” on Soundstage–Watch on YouTube

According to Richard Skelly in the All Music Guide to Jazz, Mose Allison “suffered from a ‘categorization problem'”–a boogie-woogie, beboppin’  jazz and bluesman who was also a great songwriter. His admirers include John Mayall, Pete Townshend, Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones, Diana Krall, Van Morrison, The Clash and another excellent pianist/songwriter, the late Leon Russell.

Born in Tippo, Mississippi, Allison (November 11, 1927-November 15, 2016) picked up piano in the first grade. He moved to New York in 1956 and released his debut album Back Country Suite the next year. He recorded and performed until his retirement in 2012 and became an NEA Jazz Master in 2013.

Despite his rock cred and blues leanings, Allison considered himself a jazzman. “My definition of jazz is music that’s felt, thought and performed simultaneously, ” he said in a 2006 BBC documentary. “And that’s what I’m looking for every night.”

“Parchman Farm” on Spotify

My Memories of Leon Russell in 11 Songs

 

I first discover Leon in the record bin of Boury’s Appliance Store in Wheeling, WV. I’ve never heard of him before, but I’m struck by the man looking back at me on the album cover. When I put needle to vinyl, I’m as captivated by his music as I am by him.

My friend Eddie and I chance upon Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the documentary about Joe Cocker’s world tour, at the Victoria Theater in Wheeling. In his stovepipe hat, Holy Trinity basketball jersey, Les Paul Gibson, and  his “hippy commune” of musicians and singers, he represents the type of free-spirited life I aspire to.

B.B. King is my other teenage musical idol, and I’m thrilled to see Leon playing piano for him as King performs a Russell song, “Hummingbird,” on The Mike Douglas Show. 

Here’s Leon’s original version.

During my freshman year at West Virginia University, a friend and I spend the better part of the year listening to Leon Live while drinking daiquiris and learning the Swahili chorus of “Out in the Woods.”

I see Leon for the first of five times at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. He and his carnival of a band open for Three Dog Night, which seemed a reversal of the natural order. One of the things that appeal to me about Leon is how he blends and celebrates country, rock, blues, classical, jazz and gospel, as he does when he gives the stage here to the Rev. Patrick Henderson.

Leon goes on tour to promote The Wedding Album, an record he produced with his then-wife Mary McCreary. I see them at Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota with my then-wife. They would also perform the song on one of the earliest episodes of Saturday Night Live.

In the early aughts, I catch Leon at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis. He has aged considerably, is drawing a much smaller crowd and rushes through his setlist on an electric piano. A highlight for the audience (and I’m sure him) is one of his daughters, who supplies backup vocals and a few solos. After playing sold-out stadiums and mingling with musicians from George Harrison to Eric Clapton, he must have felt like he was in a strange land indeed.

A Netflix documentary, The Wrecking Crew, celebrates a largely unknown group of LA studio musicians who backed and provided the sound to many of our favorite songs. Turns out, Leon was one of them, recording on tracks for The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Monkees–even Sinatra and The Rolling Stones.

At the Trylon Microcinema, I see A Poem is a Naked Person, the surrealistic rock documentary by Les Blank. Produced by Russell and Denny Cordell, Leon kept it from release for 40 years. While the film  was ostensibly about Leon, he’s rarely in it. With his subject on a worldwide tour, Blank didn’t have the budget to travel along–most of the footage focuses on Russell’s home base and studio in Tulsa.

Leon has a late-life revival, when Elton John repays the kindness Leon had showed him as a young artist. Their joint album, recorded as Russell recovered from brain surgery, is highly acclaimed and puts Leon back in the spotlight. John makes sure Leon can afford to tour in a respectable bus with a real grand piano. Leon is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (introduced by Sir Elton) and Songwriters Hall of Fame.

I see Leon for a few last times, at the Dakota and Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. He seems happy to be on stage with an adoring audience before him. RIP, Leon, I will miss you, but your music will always live on for me.

Otis Clay, R&B Singer and Blues Hall of Famer

If ever you needed proof of the joy of music and its power to cross cultures, generations, backgrounds, it’s this video from the documentary Take Me To The River (to be released on DVD on February 5). Otis Clay, reprising his 1972 hit “Trying to Live My Life Without You” with the help of child hip-hop prodigy Li’l P-Nut.

Clay (February 11, 1942-January 8, 2016) was born in Mississippi, but began his singing career after moving to Chicago. He started as a gospel singer, but switched to R&B, soul and blues (although he would record a gospel album again later in life).

Clay was a Grammy nominee for Best Traditional R&B Performance and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013.

Jim Diamond, Singer of “I Should Have Known Better”

“I Should Have Known Better”

Jim Diamond was a Scottish musician, who was a kind of Zelig of British rock and pop, performing with disparate groups and in a variety of genres–with the art rock band Gully Foyle, Alexis Korner (the “Godfather of British Blues”),  PhD (which he formed in the early 1980s), as a chart-topping pop artist and finally with The Blue Shoes, a duo he formed with saxophonist Snake Davis.

“I Won’t Let You Down” with Ph.D., 1982

His solo single “I Should Have Known Better” was a worldwide #1 and earned him an Ivor Novello Best Single Award. According to FirstFoot.com, he generously leveraged the song’s popularity to draw attention to the release of the Band-Aid charity CD: “I’m delighted to be Number 1, but next week, I don’t want people to buy my record, I want them to buy Band-Aid.”

“Hi Ho Silver” (Boon Theme Song)

Diamond (September 28, 1951-October 8, 2015) also wrote the theme to the popular British detective TV series Boon. Diamond’s recording of the theme reached #5 on the UK charts.

B.B. King, My Blues Godfather

This is a very personal post for me.

B.B. King played a special role in my musical life. I first was introduced to him when I was 15, at the Summit Inn in Uniontown, PA. My parents had dragged me along on a weekend getaway and left me to amuse myself. It wasn’t so easy in a place where shuffleboard passed for entertainment.

Down in a mostly empty recreation room was a jukebox. I can’t remember specifically, but I’m guessing there was a lot of Perry Como, Al Martino and Percy Faith–the records reflected the median age of the guests. But then there was B.B. King and “The Thrill Is Gone.” I bet a quarter and was astounded by the result: one of the most doleful, soulful voices I’d ever heard and a guitar that had a voice all its own. I was immediately hooked.

Back home in Wheeling, WV, I flipped through the record stacks at Boury’s Appliance Store and was shocked to discover “Completely Well,” the album that included “The Thrill Is Gone.” The cover let me know this album was OK for me: although this older bluesman (he must have been about 45 at the time) wore a suit and tie, the album art had a Peter Max vibe and a hippie type font. He was a blues pied piper for a new generation.

My friends hadn’t heard of King and they showed only polite interest in him, allowing me to put on my record between spins of Led Zeppelin or Grand Funk. But I soon found that my other rock heroes were B.B. fans, too. Leon Russell (whom I’d stumbled upon in the same appliance store) showed up on my next B.B. King album–“Indianola Mississippi Seeds”–as the writer of the single “Hummingbird.” While watching “The Mike Douglas Show” after school one day, I was delighted to see King perform the song, with Leon accompanying on piano. (In the days before YouTube, being able to see your idols was a matter of chance and fleeting opportunity. If you missed it, there was no recording to fall back on; it was lost in the ether forever.)

Leon, Eric Clapton, even George Jones–it seemed like all my heroes idolized B.B. King.

I never managed to see King in person, although God knows he gave me every opportunity. He toured relentlessly deep into his 80s, and he made it to my current home of Minneapolis many times. Last year I consciously decided not to see him. His age and declining health had taken its toll, and I wanted to remember him as I had found him, singing duets with his faithful Gibson Lucille and wearing out the needle on my stereo.

Percy Sledge, Singer of First Gold Record for Atlantic Records

It’s great to start your career with a spectacular success, but trying to top it, or even match it, has been the undoing of many an artist. That wasn’t the case with Percy Sledge (November 25, 1940-April 14, 2015). One song propelled him through a career that lasted 50 years.

His debut single “When a Man Loves a Woman” skyrocketed to No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B singles charts when it was released in 1966. It was Atlantic Records first gold record and the first No. 1 to come out of Muscle Shoals, where it was recorded. (The small Alabama town would soon become a mecca for other major artists, including Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett and The Rolling Stones.)

The song is credited to several of Sledge’s bandmates from The Esquires, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright. Sledge also laid claim to writing the song, citing that a recent breakup with his girlfriend had provided the inspiration behind it.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” had a second life 20 years after it was recorded when it started showing up on soundtracks for “The Big Chill,” “Platoon,” “The Crying Game” and even in a 1987 Levi’s Commercial. Michael Bolton recorded it for his 1991 album “Time, Love and Tenderness.”

Add another 20 years and Percy Sledge was performing the song at his 2005 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So strong was the success of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge’s other accomplishments are often overlooked. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 1994’s “Blue Night.” That album, which included performances by Steve Cropper, Mick Taylor and Bobby Womack, did win the 1996 W.C. Handy Award for Best Soul/Blues Album.

Links

“Muscle Shoals,” the Movie, featuring Percy Sledge

The Story of “When a Man Loves a Woman” in SongFacts