Archive for the ‘Chess Records’ Tag

Muddy.   Leave a comment

     Milwaukee is not the center of Blues music today. Well it’s never been the center. But when I grew up there I could hear Blues on the college radio station and on a weekend show on local R&B station WAWA. Some local artists were solid R&B performers who achieved enough success to travel regionally and occasionally nationally. My all time favorite local artist was the group Harvey Scales and The Seven Sounds. Scales was not a pure Blues singer, but nevertheless a talented singer, songwriter and performer. Scales died this year at the age of 78. He was born in Arkansas but happily for me grew up in Milwaukee. In his early years he worked a blue-collar day job and played the clubs (and some larger gigs) in the evening. I Harvey S 2019-05-28_19-39-57 (1)remember seeing him on a multi-act show at the old Milwaukee Auditorium.  Scales knew how to attract black and white audiences with his live shows, and his 1967 hit record “Loveitis” only helped bring in more fans. (“Loveitis” is on my list of ‘desert island discs’.)

     When I moved to Chicago I had multiple opportunities to see and hear the Blues, and that’s when I met Bruce Iglauer who was already a man on a mission.  Bruce was perhaps the most passionate music guy I met in those days. He decided to roll the dice and with his own money started Alligator Records. I was lucky enough to be working for the local indie distributor in Chicago in 1971 when Alligator’s first album was released, by Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. Bruce came into the offices and handed each of us a copy. One could easily tell that a lot more than Bruce’s money was invested in Taylor. His heart and soul were there too. It was one more reminder about Chicago’s place in the history of the Blues. At one time or another Alligator released albums by Big Walter Horton, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Lonnie Brooks and others.

 

     Last October I wrote about a couple of rising artists, both of whom I happened to find through an ancient and yet dynamic media source: FM.  Elise LeGrow was one of those rising artists. As I wrote in 2018,

 

“. . . KZYX radio’s Audible Feast host Fred Wooley played a track that left me confused. I knew those lyrics. At least I thought I did. But something was “wrong”. The tempo? The singer? The instruments? And suddenly it all came exploding out of some hidden part of my brain. The song was ‘You Never Can Tell’, a classic Chuck Berry hit from the 1950s.” LeGrow’s album, ‘Playing Chess’ is all about the Chess Brothers—Leonard and Phil Chess—and their eponymous Chicago record label. For her album Legrow chose a list of songs from the Chess catalog including ‘Over The Mountain’, ‘Rescue Me’, ‘Who Do You Love’, and ‘You Never Can Tell’.”

     The list of people who sang, played, wrote songs, thumbnailproduced records, or otherwise contributed to the success of Chess Records includes, of course, Chuck Berry. But there was also Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, The Moonglows, The Flamingos, Etta James, Fontella Bass, Little Milton, and Muddy Waters. That group offers R&B, Jazz, and Blues. Some (or perhaps many) of those names you know. And if the names don’t immediately ring a bell, when you hear the music you’ll recognize much of the musical history of Chess. And Muddy Waters was part of that history.

     Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi in the years just before World War I. (There is a difference of opinion as to whether he was born in 1913 or 1915. No matter.) As many people before and since can attest, growing up in Mississippi in the first half of the twentieth century shapes one’s life, and some of those influences were transformed into music. Muddy Waters wouldn’t be the first young man from Mississippi to grind his way through a ‘professional life’ as a musician, delivering that history in his music. His voice had equal parts gravel and pure emotion. And he was often surrounded by some of those same musicians when he recorded or toured. People like Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Elga Edmonds, and others. Influence was a two-way street. In his 1987 autobiography Chuck Berry recalled Muddy Waters touring through St. Louis in 1955.

“Enthralled to be so near one of my idols, I delegated myself to chaperone him around spots of entertainment in East St. Louis. Ike Turner was playing at the Manhattan Club and since he was my local rival for prestige I took Muddy there to show Ike how big I was and who I knew. . . . I took Muddy to my house that night and introduced him to [my wife] Toddy.” Berry’s wife was such a fan she had a picture taken with Muddy Waters
while the bluesman held Berry’s guitar. As I said, the paths of Muddy W EM Cover 2019-05-28_19-35-06these musicians crossed regularly, in the studio and out.
Muddy Waters toured England and performed at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. Clearly he was reaching a wider Muddy W EM Inside 2019-05-28_19-35-06 (2)audience, and the 1960s was a decade of crossover music. By the time he released “Electric Mud” in 1968, Waters was known to tried-and-true Blues fans, R&B disc jockeys, and a burgeoning largely white audience listening to “underground FM” radio.  “Electric Mud” was embraced by the new audiences and more reluctantly accepted by his core. Produced and recorded with some of the amazing musicians of Rotary Connection (who, in theory, helped bring along a perceived ‘psychedelic” flavor,) the album included Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love To You” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, Mick Jagger/Keith Richards’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, Water’s own “She’s All Right” and more. The packaging was simultaneously understated and over the top. The basic white cover bore only the title “Electric Mud”. When opened up, the inside of the gatefold jacket contained a single long shot of Waters holding his guitar, wearing sandals, standing in a white robe, with a look topped off (literally) with a freshly-processed ‘do’.

     The sessions included Muddy Waters: vocals, Gene Barge: tenor saxophone, producer, Phil Upchurch: guitars, Roland Faulkner: guitars, Pete Cosey: guitars, Charles Stepney: organ, arranger, producer, Louis Satterfield: Bass guitar, and Morris Jennings: drums.

     Muddy Waters recorded about a dozen studio albums between 1960 and his death in 1983. His gravestone says “McKinley Morganfield, 1915-1983. The Mojo Is Gone. The Master has Won”. Long after the era of Chess Records, we can look back on the evolution of artists like McKinley Morganfield and be thankful they came our way.  And left us their music.

David Steffen

© 2019 David Steffen

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Our Need For Music   Leave a comment

October 1, 2018

     Listening and hearing are two different things. Hearing is more about perception, as in some driver’s car horn asserting a right of way in traffic, or a dog barking in the distance; the crowd at a football game or a food vendor hawking the best sandwich this side of anywhere. Listening is entirely different. It’s the idea that you give your awareness to the sound, taking notice, turning your head, paying attention; you begin a journey with comprehension and (hopefully) arrive at enjoyment. The difference between hearing and listening is why I ended up working in the music business for so many years.

     Once heard, a great song, a great recording is not forgotten. It isn’t the ear-worm of a bad (and likely annoying) advertising jingle, but rather an emotional connection to something that connects with and within us. Twenty years ago a group of neuroscientists (in Nature Neuroscience, 1999) posited that

“Music has an extraordinary ability to evoke powerful emotions. This ability is particularly intriguing because, unlike most other stimuli that evoke emotion, such as smell, taste or facial expression, music has no obvious intrinsic biological or survival value.”

     All that being said, I don’t need a neuroscientist to tell me when a great record is playing. My brain (and heart) tell me that in seconds, or even fractions of seconds.

     Art is personal. Accept, for the moment, that radio is always playing to an audience of one. Radio programmers are often taught to think and perform that way: talk on the radio as if you’re speaking to just one person. Whether the station has thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of listeners, the audience is always an audience of one: you, me, her, him. Even when two or three of us are trapped together in a car on California’s roads or highways, most of the time if one member of the group says “did you hear that”, the likely response from the other passengers is “huh? Hear what?” That’s why I love radio. It’s personal.

     Some six weeks ago I was returning to the Mendocino Coast from the San Francisco Bay area. As I got somewhere north of Marin County I pushed the button on my car radio for KRSH, The Krush. It’s a predominantly Americana station situated in the middle of one of the most famous wine-regions in the world: Napa and Sonoma counties. (Hence, KRSH crush, as in grapes.) The midday host was about to begin interviewing a recording artist, singer/songwriter, and as she introduced her guest I wasn’t certain I heard the name, but the interview was worth the listen. At some point she told her audience she wanted to play a cut from the new album by Stan, or Steve, or Stu. I wasn’t certain just what his name was, but when the music started I really didn’t care about his name. The track was “Forgiveness” and for the next 3 1/2 minutes I was all about this amazing song with haunting lyrics.

I got voices in my head
Get me up and out of bed
I’ve been busted and I’ve been burned
My heart is beating but you know it hurts
And I can tell you every name
But that will never change anything
I ain’t saying I’ll forget it
Or their wrongs will ever be right
We’re just talking about forgiveness
And how it gives you back your life.

     So simple. Whatever the hurt, forgive, and that forgiveness will give back to you, perhaps even your life. The bridge in the song reminds us (particularly those of us who’ve been married for more than a few years) that

I know it’s never easy
Being torn apart
Forgive to be forgiven,
It will open up your heart.

     As happens to many of us—I assume, because I know it happens to me—I couldn’t get enough of this song, this recording.  Arriving home in Mendocino County I immediately tried to figure out just who was this guy on the radio. StallSome internet surfing, including a look at the KRSH website and, voila!, I had his name: Stoll Vaughan. Like any music lover bordering-on-groupie, a couple of weeks later I had a phone conversation with Stoll.

     First, it’s pronounced “stall”, not “stole”. (Stoll is a family name.) He’s from Kentucky and now calls Los Angeles home. “Forgiveness” is not his first song, and The Conversation is not his first album. As the saying goes, this project was not his first rodeo. Stoll’s Kentucky origin didn’t surprise me, as all those years having traveled to and through Nashville (not to mention the film project I did with the Bluegrass Music Association some 20+ years ago) immersed me in conversations with the sounds of a rural and cosmopolitan mid-south gentleness. He’s had education at Michigan’s Interlochen Boarding High School—one of the single best possible schools for an arts-oriented teenager. The Conversation was recorded back near Stoll’s home turf, using studios in Indiana and Nashville, with help from players like Duane Betts (son of Allman Brothers alum Dickey Betts), and Devon Allman (son of the late Gregg Allman), producer Carl Broemel and others.

     Stoll’s album has more than one cut, by the way. There are 13 tracks offering a listening experience just under an hour. “Bear Witness” “Weatherman”, “Meet You In The Middle” confirm his authenticity as a solid songwriter. And happily, like I experienced in my days in the music industry, it only takes one track to get someone’s attention, and then, like a good deed done to you, you’re duty-bound to pass it on. We no longer have hundreds of Top-40 radio stations, helping break an artist. Today we have to help music along, by passing the knowledge in conversation, in email, and through social media. If you frequent a bar with live music, let the owner know about your discovery.  I’m passing “Forgiveness” on to you so that you can discover Stoll Vaughan for yourself. While you’re at it, take credit for his success too. Stoll won’t mind and neither will I.

     Before I let you go, I wanted to mention one other artist and album worth listening to. KZYX radio’s Audible Feast host Fred Wooley played a track that left me confused. I knew those lyrics. At least I thought I did. But something was “wrong”. The tempo? The singer? The instruments? And suddenly it all came exploding out of some hidden part of my Elise Title CRbrain. The song was “You Never Can Tell”, a classic Chuck Berry hit from the 1950s. You may recall that in the storyline, Monsieur and Madame end up getting married, because “you know you never can tell”. The tempo for this version was brought way back, and my friend Fred told us that the vocalist was Elise Legrow.  Who? I hadn’t heard of her either. Pity. Her new album, Playing Chess has nothing to do with the game of chess, but everything to do with the Chess Brothers, as in Leonard and Phil Chess and Chicago-based Chess Records. Legrow chose a list of songs from the Chess catalog including “Over The Mountain”, “Rescue Me”, “Who Do You Love”, and more.

     Beyond the Playing Chess album (and in particular “You Never Can Tell”) there’s another Legrow track I found; a much older track of hers—2012?—titled “No Good Woman”.

     Remember those neuroscientists I quoted earlier? While I understand their scientific foundation, I have to disagree with one of their conclusions: “. . . music has no obvious intrinsic biological or survival value.” Any rational human being with a pulse knows there is a biological need for music. At the very least, did these geniuses never hear about setting the mood?  And as for survival, the concept of “desert island discs” was created for specific treasured recordings, i.e. music. Those brainiacs may not believe music is necessary for our survival, but I wouldn’t want to get stranded somewhere without my iPod and its 10,000 of my favorite songs.  Besides, if I’m not alone on the island, how will I set the mood?

David Steffen

© 2018 David Steffen
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