10…No Make That 11 Albums You Should Have
You got KDHX’s Soul Selector, Papa Ray, and I’ve been asked to make a list of ten albums by blues musicians associated with the St. Louis scene. A quick reality check: Some of these selections are out of print. Also, I keep myself on this side of 1960 as a cutoff date—there’s no prewar artists, no compilations of early blues (I defer to my fellow KDHX jock and friend Ron Edwards in this regard). Also, the order in which these are given are in no way a ranking of their merit. Just ten albums for ear candy, composed by moi.
1. Oliver Sain: Saint Louis Breakdown
The master musician/arranger/bandleader/songwriter with his recordings from the Nashville-based ABET label. Sain cut all these sides in his Archway Studios, and you get the cream: dance-floor missiles for doing the Funky Four Corners (that’s the Slide, to most of y’all) such as “Booty Bumpin’” and “Bus Stop” (the latter a sizable dance hit in Europe), a fine slice of blues selections (“Mr. King & Mr. Jordan,” “Scratch My Back”), an amazing slow gospel meditation called “The Prayer,” the brooding vibraphone-shrouded “On the Hill” (which was sampled by Puff-Daddy-Whatever-He’s-Called-This-Week), Sain’s (to me) definitive reading for the world of “Harlem Nocturne,” as well as his truly inspirational call-to-arms masterpiece on “Soul Serenade” (this should probably be played publicly throughout Iraq for the morale of our troops and the population at large), and the title cut, which should be our city’s official anthem. God bless Oliver Sain.
2. Arthur Williams: Midnite Blue
I picked this set of the three CDs currently available by our most notable harpist/singer because it really spotlights all of this blues trickster’s best strengths: his deep-dish Mississippi vocals take the material and patterns to the core of the Delta. Recorded in St. Louis at Rayburn Studios, the sound is wonderful, the mood assured and relaxed, and the way A.W. conjures up for the listener songs by Sonny Boy Williamson is almost eerie—it’s like Arthur is channeling Sonny into the twenty-first century. Gods, Arthur just nails Williamson’s sound on the harp. Wicked stuff. Credit to Bob Lohr for the production excellence.
3. Henry Townsend: 88 Blues
Our perfect master of St. Louis Blues is still with us in his tenth decade, and no better place to start if you have not heard any of his recordings. Mr. Townsend is proof that music is a state of creativity that allows those practitioners of long life to continue their craft in ways as vital, and unexpected, as works from their youthful careers. I can only imagine that if a 30-year-old Townsend could have heard what he was recording at the end of this century, he would be astounded. And so should we.
4. Tommy Bankhead: Please Mr. Foreman
At the outset, I shall state this was produced (largely) by my friend and business associate Lew Prince, with input from me. I also will flatly state that of the available recordings by Bankhead, this one so outshines the others as to not even be a question. In good health, backed by his very best band (from the early ’80s), here’s the man who, along with Silver Cloud, virtually kept live blues alive in St. Louis during the arid ’70s. Bankhead, along with drummer Ben Wells and a young Keith Doder, recorded this at the now-defunct Premier Studios (where the TV show Wild Kingdom was shot), and listeners who only hear his dispirited and near-death recordings on Fedora will get no idea of how good Mr. Bankhead was at the top of his game. Check how loose-but-tight the band sounds as their leader delivers whipsaw guitar leads and his finest vocal performances. Must-hear cuts include a stunning “Cummins Prison Farm,” where Tommy’s vocal is accompanied only by Doder’s harp, which exists in a telepathic link to the singer in this amazing one-take recording. My other personal favorite is one penned by T.B., “Don’t Take My Picture From Your Wall.” I doubt if any woman ever did.
5. Soulard Blues Band: Live in Stuttgardt
This St. Louis institution has been a mainstay in the best sense of that word—a constantly high level of live entertainment on stages, festivals, bars, weddings, and winery gigs for going on 25 years. Led by Art Dwyer, Soulard Blues has taken the RFT poll for “Best Blues Band” more than any other group in town. Easily the best-rehearsed blues unit working today, here’s a quite fine snapshot of our boys knockin’ ’em dead in Germany. Sloppy ensemble-work and self-indulgent solos are never found on SB’s stage. Precision coupled with a we’re-here-to-party élan wins the audience every time; why else do you think Soulard Blues is the hardest-working (and most-booked) band in the River City?
6. Bennie Smith: Shook Up
Probably the most-revered blues guitarist by fellow fret players around, Mr. Smith’s blues pedigree comes from being of that generation in the early ’50s who worshipped at the altar of Texas guitar master Gatemouth Brown. A contemporary of guitar stylists such as the late Johnny Guitar Watson and Ike Turner (who, legend states, got playing tips from Smith), Bennie can literally put you back in your seat from the power of his heavy-yet-floating, sweet-but-stinging solo work. His band, Urban Blues Express, always delivers the goods (if in a song list that goes unvaried, for the most part), working more weekends at BB’s on Broadway than any other band around. There have been at least two locally produced CDs (no longer available), but the Fedora label’s Shook Up gives the listener a good idea of the controlled havoc Smith can create with a solid-body Fender guitar and one Boogie amplifier. Featuring his long-time bassist Sharon Foehner, tenor-saxist Harry Simon (very capable and dangerous on his horn), and harpist Eric McSpadden, this is his best recorded effort yet.
7. Johnnie Johnson/Jimmie Vaughan/
Clayton Love: Rockin’ Eighty-Eights
Unfortunately, this is out of print, which is a pity and shame, ’cause in some ways I consider this the greatest single blues release out of St. Louis in the past 40 years. If only for the cuts by Johnson (which, in my opinion, are his best sides as a leader), this is a must-have. Filled with an embarrassment of musical talent from our city, Rockin’ Eighty-Eights is definitive. You hear maybe the best work ever by Ike Turner’s singer-pianist, Clayton Love (“The Big Question,” first recorded in ’56 by Turner’s Kings of Rhythm for the Federal label outta Cincinnati, was Love’s best-known record, and the version here absolutely trumps the original), plus the overlooked solid keyboard work of Jimmie Vaughan, once Albert King’s bandleader; Vaughan’s “Big Legged Woman” would be the best cut on about 99 percent of blues compilations out today if included.
But the real jewels of this set are the Johnnie Johnson sides. His instrumental “Francis” is a big-band romp played by an A-Team of St. Louis sidemen; the version of Johnnie Taylor’s “Little Bluebird,” sung by the late Vernon Guy, sparkles knowingly and is probably Guy’s finest recorded moment. The wonderful version of the Avery Parrish standard “Afterhours” is as pure an example of Johnson’s artistry that exists. Recorded at the legendary Club Imperial, Rockin’ Eighty-Eights is an essential recording of St. Louis music.
8. Ike Turner: Here and Now
Along with Oliver Sain, Ike Turner is the don, to borrow an Italian phrase, of St. Louis R&B after 1950. It is impossible to even imagine what the contours of the history of the city would have been if Turner had not relocated from Mississippi to Missouri. By the time Ike came to town, he had already irrevocably influenced the stroke of twentieth century American music, a multitalented force of nature: talent scout/instrumentalist/producer/songwriter and bandleader par excellence. (I once heard one of the original record industry insiders of the Midwest, now retired—a man who, so to speak, knew where all the bodies were buried and who paid for it, a man who was never given to over-praising anything—recall Ike’s Kings of Rhythm in 1958 as simply “the best fuckin’ rock ’n’ roll show I ever saw.”) Ike Turner simply wrote the book on blues/rock/R&B when it comes to our town. Anyone who objects to praise of Turner due to parts of his personal life they really know nothing of (but did once see a biopic on Tina Turner’s life) should never look upon a Picasso painting; in other words, a great artist is not necessarily a nice person.
Ike’s Grammy-nominated Here and Now was, hands-down, the very best blues release of 2001, wiping the floor of an otherwise respectable effort by Grammy winner Jimmie Vaughan. But at this point, Ike could probably cut a blues duet with Jesus Christ or the Dalai Lama and still be seen as the devil made flesh on our planet. No matter. This is a magnificent contemporary blues album that gives the listener stellar guitar and piano (watch out, Ike’s a bitch on the keys) by Turner, along with his very best vocals to date. The band is full-blown, with a horn section to die for, and Ike’s choice of material is flawless. It all starts out with him reprising Billy Gayle’s wonderful “Tore Up,” and Ike does what any truly great artist does when using or returning to an earlier starting point or idea: he makes it new. From there, you hear two wonderful instrumentals: a guitar piece that reprises his own “The Grumble” from the early ’70s, actually a paraphrase of a Freddie King number; the piano vehicle “Baby’s Got It” (which, when Ike played this at the Oliver Sain tribute at the Pageant two years ago, totally stole the show), plus a very threatening “I Gave You What You Wanted”; there’s also “Catfish Blues,” which he transforms into a slow blues stomp. The rest is equally enjoyable, a majestic return to form for the most mistrusted musician ever to be associated with St. Louis—hell, Ike trumps Miles Davis’s whole “black prince” persona without even trying.
9. David Dee: Goin’ Fishing
Along with ZZ Hill’s “Down Home Blues,” I have always thought the title cut of this set was absolutely the best blues song written in the ’80s. A sly double entendre story of a soon-to-be-ex’s excursion down to the fishing hole (“I don’t know what bait she usin’, what kind of pole she gonna use/but she had a pretty red dress, and a brand new pair of shoes”), it is the crown jewel of a quite fine example of a St. Louis area bluesman using the resources in town (Oliver Sain’s studio, Johnnie Johnson, and hand-picked sidemen) to create a better blues LP than ever came out of London, NYC, or Los Angeles. Dee is a fine songwriter, a capable guitarist who knows to hand off the fretwork when someone else is better (would that lesson be learned by all you #!?@%$?!# guitar players around heah?)—in this case, Mr. Phil Westmoreland—and a vocalist who can really sweat tears out of the words he sings. I do love this recording. Probably the best songwriter for blues this town has seen since Mr. Sain himself.
10. QT Macon: “Blow Wind”
Not only is this out of print, it’s not an album even—just a single, but a great one. Remember, the blues was originally a “singles” business, meaning the LP format did not become important ’til the ’70s, with the need to cater to the expectations of the rock audience. A medium-slow blues with a real sense of urgency and regret, it’s sung by a guy from East St. Louis who’s no longer alive: QT passed within two years of this being cut, but not before he enjoyed seeing it as the most demanded record with the city’s black blues audience in its day. Long out of print on the Pulsar label, this is a tragically unavailable piece of real St. Louis blues by a man who struck fellow musicians and the public as one of the nicest guys you could ever know. The chances are good, when someone calls me crying about their baby having left them and sez, “Papa Ray, you got a good record for somebody in my state?” that I reach for this to soothe a troubled soul.
11. Billy Peek: Can a White Boy Play the Blues?
In Billy Peek, we get this chapter of the St. Louis music book: the gifted young player who understudies with a great master. Many people remember Mr. Peek as Chuck Berry’s best support guitarist (sorry, Keith) touring at a time when Berry made promoters tremble while delivering the goods coast to coast. Before that, Peek had played throughout St. Louis (he fronted a band in the Gaslight Square era with singer Bonnie Lee, aka Bonnie Bramlett), and by the time Rod Stewart hired him for LP-making and international roadwork, there was no question that Rod the Mod had a real world-class player.
After seven years or so, Peek returned to St. Louis, picked up a steady gigging circuit, and cut this LP. All the pieces are in place for a guitarist who had not only absorbed Berry, but had an intimate understanding of two other, uh, good guitarists who had worked around town some: Ike Turner and Albert King. This set of songs carries a rock-heaviness in the fretwork while maintaining more soulfulness than 99 percent of those who toil in the rock-blues trench. At a time when Ike’s infamy was just beginning to (no pun) peak, Billy’s inclusion of Turner’s “Prancin’” reminded everyone who might have forgotten how potent Turner’s music burns—and Peek was probably the best guitarist on the planet to do this. The title cut is the knowing, tongue-in-cheek wink ’n’ nod from a white guy who learned all this music at the root and can do it as well as any. This guy can carry the blues swing, no worry about that.