Monday, December 29, 2008

Guitar Johnny--Hill Country Bluesman

Back a few posts, I mentioned the Bocce Boogie CD release on Topcat Records featuring Big Walter Horton w/Johnny Nicholas and others. I plugged Guitar Johnny as being an important, but under appreciated blues guitarist. Devout blues fans from the East Coast (he's from the Rhode Island) and from Texas (his adoptive home where he's played with everyone who's anyone--including stints with Asleep At The Wheel) are certainly familiar with his talent. Folks around the Hill Country mecca of Fredricksburg have had him to themselves for quite a period of time. He and his wife settled down there some time back, turned an abandoned gas station into an eclectic cafe and gave Johnny his own venue to pluck his blues (bet his New Year's Eve show with the Texas Allstars will get his joint hoppin').

Now, the reason for this post is due to the fact that my daughter, Megan called shortly after she and her husband, Brad, arrived in Fredricksburg and after spending Christmas with us. It seems that she was calling from the Hill Top Cafe and wanted to know if I knew who Johnny Nicholas was because they were perusing his CDs on display and needed to know if she could purchase one for me. They were visiting that fine city to meet Brad's mom, Melynn. I told her that, yes, I knew who Johnny was and that they were in his cafe and which CD she should buy me. Most of the Johnny Nicholas I have is in his sideman role backing up blues legends such as Johnny Shines, Snooky Pryor, and Big Walter. I have his Broke Again (which is excellent) and told her to grab Thrill on the Hill for me and to grab a chat with Johnny if she could and tell him that she was the daughter of one of his fans. She said that it looked like it might be him setting up to play on the stage of the cafe. So, they were treated to some great food and songs and he stopped by their table for a chat.

He was the nice guy that I had heard that he was and it seems that Brad and Megan have run across more fine musicians in recent times than I have in quite some time. What can you expect for a couple that sends out Christmas cards picturing them at Bonaroo 2008. Haven't heard the story, but I know they had plans to venture on over to Helotes and J.T. Flore Country Store for a performance by one of Brad's favorite groups, The Dedringers, before they left the Hill Country region. Anyway--

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Houston Loses Another Legend

Houston blues guitar legend, Pete Mayes, passed on December 16, 2008. The Houston Chronicle's Andrew Dansbury wrote a nice tribute article and can tell it better than myself, so here's the link: Pete Mayes. Pete was one of those Houston bluesmen that knew what the limelight was all about and chose to remain close to home to ply his trade. Blues guitar fans certainly know his work. After hearing him play for the first time, I felt that absolutely no one understood T-Bone Walker's style as well as Pete Mayes. He certainly had his own way of picking, but when he wanted to evoke the ghost of the master, he nailed it down pat.

One of the drawbacks to living in a smaller city, is that I have to depend on the Internet to get important blues news and sometimes, sad news such as this. The news came via Bob Corritore's newsletter which I receive by e-mail weekly and always is full of very timely blues news. With the passing of Joe 'Guitar' Hughes and Calvin Owens and now Pete Mayes, the represenatives of an very important Houston blues generation have left us, but they also have left us with an important legacy. They each kept their music vital up to the very end, without compromise. Anyway--

Monday, December 15, 2008

iPodner Rides Again

Had the hankering to add a few new blues to the 'ol iPod and thought that I would first check out Tomcat Courtney, who Bob Corritore touted in an e-mail to me after I praised the harp work that he laid down with Dave Riley. I think I've mentioned Bob before as one the movers and groovers attempting to keep the blues vital. I don't think I've mentioned how well I enjoyed Dave Riley's Travellin' Down The Dirt Road on Blue Witch, which is a fairly new label that is rounding up some blues cats that have never gotten their due. The Riley CD is a no frills, old time, good time blues with solid guitar work supporting a great blues voice and supported by Corritore's in the pocket harp work and not much else in the way of instrumentation. Tomcat Courtney's Blue Witch release Downsville Blues is in much the same vein, but has an even older old time blues vibe informed by the 78 year old's generation. Even though he's been in San Diego since the '70s, he was born in Marlin, Texas and there is no doubt that those rolling hills were alive with the sound of music--blues music from the likes of Lightning Hopkins, Frankie Lee Sims, and Lil' Son Jackson and Courtney seems to have deeply absorbed the style well, especially Ol' Sam Hopkin's school of blues.

I picked out tunes in which I felt Corritore's harp was really helping put the song into a deeper blues zone, not to say that the ol' Tomcat wasn't getting it done. These tunes remind me most of what Lightning was conjuring up with an electric guitar in his lap, but there is little of the boogie mode that he switched on frequently. Tomcat keeps these timepieces smoldering at low boil, just short of a lope. Most of Downsville Blues' cuts are his originals, but they lean on the traditional ideas that have floated in and out of blues songs since the genre took a name. Cook My Breakfast is informed by the drive that gave Lil' Son Jackson's version of Rock Me Baby its popularity. Tomcat takes the Wolf's Smokestack Lightning's main riff and makes it work well within his I Wonder and Corritore seems to know exactly what fat toned note choices will best enhance the song. His Railroad Avenue is about being railroaded by his woman who has parties with her friends drinking wine and smoking crack and he and Bob bounce off each other effectively. The lone cover that I downloaded is a unique take on Bottle Up and Go in which he throws out his own lyrical ideas--which seems to be traditional with this tune and other blues that one can imagine being jammed down at a juke with verses tacked on to keep the dancers sweating and stomping into the night.

So, what Tomcat Courtney has going on here is simply throwback blues played the way that he's always played them. I think he is a testament to the fact that not all Texas bluesmen who landed on the West Coast gravitated to the swinging, uptown, horn driven sounds we associate with the West Coast sound. Some stayed downhome and real--like the Tomcat. Neither he nor Corritore are out of the flash and dash school of play. When they solo, they get the gritty going and aren't afraid to get dirty. Corritore's gets some really nice amp tones honkin' in his support and it is in support where he stays, with no intentions of stealing the show--I think they call it sympathetic support. In this case, Tomcat needs no sympathy and puts on a heck of a show for any aged bluesman, much less a 78 year old. At some point I'll probably round up the rest of the tunes on this release.
When Blacktop Records folded a few years back and its catalogue entered a limbo phase, I wanted to kick myself for not buying some of their releases that I kept putting off for one reason or another. Rod Piazza's Alphabet Blues was one of those that I regretted not getting my hands on and while I was surfing around lining the Tomcat stuff up, I saw that iTunes had Blacktop stuff available and decided to add a few of Rod's tunes to this latest visit. I'm also a big fan of Lee McBee and pulled up Mike Morgan and the Crawl's first Blacktop effort with McBee on board as vocalist and harp blower and grabbed the songs that best featured his huffing and puffing.

Both of these releases have been around for quite some time (except when in the aforementioned limbo) and most of you that have been blues fans for awhile probably have heard tunes from these. Let's just say that they are fairly representative of what both of these blues aggregations are known for--solid musicianship and heartfelt blues.

Piazza's Blues In '92 needs to be in his set list right now because it sums up just how absolutely rotten economic conditions were in 1992. His slow blues message is that things just can't possibly get much worse and his fat smack harp tones accentuate the mood. He might consider updating this one. Hydramatic simply takes off on Rocket 88, Too Many Drivers, or any of the myriad of upbeat blues tunes comparing the female persuasion to automobiles. Alex Schulz drives the quick shuffled sounds on Somebody with some tasty, tasty guitar licks with just a harp lick or two thrown in by Piazza--a good example of the ensemble playing (especially with Honey's rolling piano notes) that the Mighty Flyers have always been known for producing and this is one of his best units. Not that Piazza has ever gathered together a lesser band, but this era was a fertile one for the Mighty Flyers. Just darned good Rod Piazza stuff.

Mike Morgan's slide and Lee McBee's harp open up the lowdown, slowdown blues I'm Worried (from the Rough and Ready release)until McBee's made for the blues vocals sing about just how long he is worried about what else?--his woman. Nothing fancy just down the river, straight up blues played right. Then apparently, it's McBee that's done the wrong and begs to be allowed to return in Take Me Back which showcases his fine harp playing. McBee has been in and out of Dallas' Mike Morgan's and the Crawl band over the years and being the harpcentrict guy that I am, those with him are the CDs that I prefer. I chose these two tunes because I could hear his harp in the snippets. One of the benefits (to me) of iTunes is that I can pick and choose which cuts I want from an album, but sometimes the snippets reveal too little about instrumentation that may still come along--such as an outstanding, hair-raising harp solo that occurs later in the song. Also, neither these snippets nor my few song choices are grounds for reviewing an entire CD, so that's not the purpose of this post. I'm just relaying what me and my iPodner are doing.

Let me say that contrary to the impression that I'm giving, I do listen to plenty of blues band without harp players. I have tons of recordings with nary a whiff of a harp note on them, but at some point, due to basic Economics 101, I had to narrow down what I was going to purchase, so at some point that meant that those purchases would have some meaty blues harp on the disc. So, with the advent of satellite radio, I can listen to a variety of styles, but when it come to buying, I have to tone it down a bit and bite the bullet and go with the harp.

Okay, now that that's out of the way. Another set of recordings that I discovered on iTunes that I wished I'd gotten before they went out of print for awhile were by The Legendary Blues Band. The tunes that I downloaded were chosen for two reasons: Jerry__Portnoy. He and Pinetop Perkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Louis Myers and Calvin Jones were Muddy Waters alumni who recorded the Rounder album called Life of Ease, from which I pulled good examples of Portnoy getting down on it. Over the years the personnel changed, but the first couple of Rounder issues normally get the highest kudos. This was Muddy's band, so they were a rock solid unit, but the dynamics of Muddy's vocals left them needy in that category. Think I left Portnoy off my harp player's list and that is a major oversight. No one short of Kim Wilson gets that Chicago sound down pat better than JP does, plus I learned a ton from his instructional CDs.

He gets the after hours Little Walter's Sad Hours type of stuff happening on Blues for Big Nate, recalls George Harmonica Smith's style on Woke Up With The Blues, deep warbles going on the stop time Love You To The Bone and jumps and swings the boogie on Snakeskin Strut. He proves that he can hang with a horn section on the title cut Life of Ease as he blasts through the song with his fat runs. Boy, do I love his stuff on this release. There just ain't enough Jerry Pornoy out there, so I'm glad this is available as a testament to his skills.

I haven't seen Cadillac Records yet, for one reason. It hasn't made it to my small Texas burg and it may not. Might have to leave town to catch it. There's a lot of hoopla and dissing and slamming going on the discussion boards around the world wide web, but I know this--Kim Wilson is playing the Little Walter harp parts, so I'm gonna see it. Sure, Hollywood has a way of botching biopics frequently and why we'd expect a story about Chess records and their recording artists to be an exception is wishful thinking. One of the major craw sticking scenarios portrays Little Walter as someone who shot and killed a man for performing with his name. Never happened according to LW biographers and most harp fans are a little peeved that the general public will come away with the impression that he was a murderer. Pretty audacious fact to play around with I'd say, but what the hey--it's only a movie.

When I got around to downloading from the Cadillac Records companion CD, I was weary of the process and simply grabbed Kim Wilson blowing Little Walter's masterpiece Juke and I just had to have the live version of Elvis Presley singing My Babe. Of course, KW slays his tune and kicks booty and Elvis does the same. I'm not a huge Elvis fan, but you know the man could sing the blues. I may re-visit this release and pull a few more of the harp tunes off at some point.

Way back in the day, an transplanted Okie from Oklahoma was making a name for himself in Paul Butterfield's Blues Band in Chicago, which was the first integrated blues band to be recorded by a major label in the early '60s. The guitar tandem of he and Mike Bloomfield were a formidable pair that were as much a reason for the band's success as Butterfield's scorching harp skills were. All have passed on, but Elvin Bishop still soldiers on and keeps doing what he's been doing and doing it better than ever and more prolific than ever.

His latest recording, The Blues Rolls On, enticed B.B. King, George Thorogood, Derek Trucks, James Cotton, Warren Hayes, Kim Wilson, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Angela Strehli, John Nemeth, The Homemade Jamz Band and R.C. Carrier into the studio to help him sling the hash. A slate of artists like these on one CD could prove to be more of a train wreck than anything resembling a cohesive recording, but Bishop pulls it off and more importantly is never overshadowed on his own disc. Well, I'm judging by the iTunes snippets and the few tunes that I stuck on my podner, but he appears to shift gears with each of the strengths of his guests and proves just how versatile he can be.

My decision was based on not being able to pass up Angela Strehli's contribution and she just happened to share Night Time Is The Right Time with the superb John Nemeth. Bishop kicks it off with what he is best known for--scorching slide guitar. They absolutely take ownership of this classic tune and wail its heart out with Nemeth taking on the opening verses and Strehli taking it home. Nemeth whips his harp out to get some nasty licks in and around Bishop's slip sliding around. Wow! It does cook with gas. I decided to hang with two other tunes featuring Nemeth; Who's The Fool with Kid Andersen and Bishop swapping licks and getting down and an instrumental version of Jimmy Reed's Honest I Do that Bishop slays with his slide copping the melody and Nemeth nailing the harp tone. So, don't let the plethora of guest artist sway you away from this one because they play to his strengths and strenthen his weaknesses. Elvin Bishop fans owe this one to themselves. Anyway--'Nuff for Now.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Blues Harp Folks

Thought that I would drop a list of blues harp players that have had a bit of an impact on my own self. Of course, the Giants of the Genre have all had lots of influence on my development as a player and most all on the list got what they've got from the likes of Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson I&II, Little Walter, Big Walter and even Howlin' Wolf. There would be none of us, if they hadn't been laying it down back in the day.

The guys listed here are those that just have something that I don't have and would like to have in the way of deep, deep tone and in some cases, harp guys that I have come to know and have witnessed just what they can get going on the harp up close and personal and in some cases have helped me along my journey. No particular order of importance here, because they have all perked my ears and tweaked what I do.

1. Sonny Boy Terry--Anyone that reads my blog has read bits and pieces about Sonny Boy Terry. I've seen him step up in a room filled with great harmonica players and rise above them all with one, fat harp note. He is as good as anybody out there.

2. Gary Primich--One of the most versatile harp players in terms of moving from one style to another, but when he chose to do the deep, heavy toned stuff, he could be untouchable. I was sitting next to Sonny Boy Terry one night when Primich hit the stage and Terry had one thing to say about the first lick hit, "Whoa, FAT!" Listen to Mark Hummel's Bluesharp Meltdown with Primich featured and it is clear that he melts them all down. He passed away way too soon.

3. Kim Wilson--He is simply the King of the Hill.

4. Rick Estrin--He and Kim were pulling from the Source back in the late '60s and now they are the Source. May the Source be with you.

5. Rod Piazza--Ditto to #3. Has to be something special about guys like these who keep it real and have been at it for 40 some-odd years. I actually understood Little Walter a little more after listening to my first Piazza recording.

6. James Harman--I just like the tone he gets going once he plugs in and he's right with #3,#4 as far as tenure on the circuit goes and hangs with them all.

7. Gary Smith--Took me a little longer to catch on to Smith, but if the rest of the guys above defer to him as THE Westcoast Guru, then he is. It is tone that matters most with him and he produces it in spades.

8. Lester Butler--My favorite live recording is his Red Devils Live at King King. A classic. Another one that left the planet too early.

9. Ian Collard--The Aussie has tone to the bone and can do the overblow/draw thang while he is at it and does it with a great trio from down under.

10.Stephen Schneider--Professor Schneider has straighten me out more times than I can remember as far as what I should be doing to become a more toneful harp dude. In fact, he frequently straightened a whole roomful of HOOT (Harmonica Organization Of Texas) members and got us flying on a better path. We listened because we couldn't get close to the tones that he was producing before our very ears, but some of us tried. Many years later and I'm still not there, but I'm much, much better because of his insistence that I get better.

11. Charlie Musselwhite--I was going to stop at 10, but I can't overlook the Granddaddy of them all. He was the first blues harp player that I heard that really used a lot more of the harp than most bluesmen. Instead of working out just on the first 6 holes, he ran up and down the thing more frequently. He's also the only one with a seminal '60s recording to his fame. He just keeps on keeping on.

Oh, I guess I could go on and on with the likes of RJ Mischo, Mitch Kashmar, Tad Robinson, John Nemeth, Jason Ricci, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, Junior Wells, and on and on...and I love them all. This list is made up of those that made a difference in my quest for tone. So be it. Anyway--


I made it back from China safe and sound on Nov. 24th and it took a bit of time to get over jet lag. I had always heard about the effects flying halfway around the world had on the mind, body and spirit and it took a good part of a week to get it all back on track.

I had a great time traveling with my brother-in-law, George, and his brother-in-law, Russell and a tour group from all over the place, but mainly Nevada and Texas. It would take a whole 'nother blog site to detail the trip with over 400 photos (wanna see my slide show?), so I won't stick all that here. Now if I had run into a Chinese bluesman or any of the harmonica making Huang family, then ya'll would be in for it, but I didn't. I will leave my photo taken from the top of the Great Wall outside of Beijing, for posterity's sake. Anyway--