A Scattered History of the Blues Vol. 6: Piano Blues

piano blues v6

 

The intermission in the blues show was a bit longer than expected. But here we are, back in the saddle, eager to share some beautiful tickling of the ivories.

Piano blues is a broad stylistic term that may refer to a variety of blues styles, sharing only the characteristic that they use the piano as the primary musical instrument and adhere to the basic harmonic structure of Blues. Some examples of piano blues may include Delta, Piedmont, Jump, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago styles. Boogie woogie is one of the earliest and best known styles of piano blues, pioneered by performers like Roosevelt Sykes, “The Honeydripper”. though barrelhouse, swing, R&B, rock and roll and jazz are strongly influenced by early pianists who played the blues. Notable blues pianists include Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Dr. John, and Ray Charles. (Wikipedia)

 

An amazingly prolific artist who brought a brisk air of urban sophistication to his frequently stunning presentation, John “Peter” Chatman — better known as Memphis Slim — assuredly ranks with the greatest blues pianists of all time. He was smart enough to take Big Bill Broonzy‘s early advice about developing a style to call his own to heart, instead of imitating that of his idol, Roosevelt Sykes. Soon enough, other 88s pounders were copying Slim rather than the other way around; his thundering ivories attack set him apart from most of his contemporaries, while his deeply burnished voice possessed a commanding authority.

images-1As befits his stage name, John “Peter” Chatman was born and raised in Memphis; a great place to commit to a career as a bluesman. Sometime in the late ’30s, he resettled in Chicago and began recording as a leader in 1939 for OKeh, then switched over to Bluebird the next year. Around the same time, Slim joined forces with Broonzy, then the dominant force on the local blues scene. After serving as Broonzy‘s invaluable accompanist for a few years, Slim emerged as his own man in 1944.

After the close of World War II, Slim joined Hy-Tone Records, cutting eight tracks that were later picked up by King. Lee Egalnick’s Miracle label reeled in the pianist in 1947; backed by his jumping band, the House Rockers (its members usually included saxists Alex Atkins and Ernest Cotton), Slim recorded his classic “Lend Me Your Love” and “Rockin’ the House.” The next year brought the landmark “Nobody Loves Me” (better known via subsequent covers by Lowell Fulson, Joe Williams, and B.B. King as “Everyday I Have the Blues”) and the heartbroken “Messin’ Around (With the Blues).”

The pianist kept on label-hopping, moving from Miracle to Peacock to Premium (where he waxed the first version of his uncommonly wise down-tempo blues “Mother Earth”) to Chess to Mercury before staying put at Chicago’s United Records from 1952 to 1954. This was a particularly fertile period for the pianist; he recruited his first permanent guitarist, the estimable Matt Murphy, who added some serious fret fire to “The Come Back,” “Sassy Mae,” and “Memphis Slim U.S.A.”

Before the decade was through, the pianist landed at Vee-Jay Records, where he cut definitive versions of his best-known songs with Murphy and a stellar combo in gorgeously sympathetic support (Murphy was nothing short of spectacular throughout).

Slim exhibited his perpetually independent mindset by leaving the country for good in 1962. A tour of Europe in partnership with bassist Willie Dixon a couple of years earlier had so intrigued the pianist that he permanently moved to Paris, where recording and touring possibilities seemed limitless and the veteran pianist was treated with the respect too often denied even African-American blues stars at home back then. He remained there until his 1988 death, enjoying his stature as expatriate blues royalty. (AMG)

 

 

Unknown-4A formidable contender in the ring before he shifted his focus to pounding the piano instead, Champion Jack Dupree often injected his lyrics with a rowdy sense of down-home humor. But there was nothing lighthearted about his rock-solid way with a boogie; when he shouted “Shake Baby Shake,” the entire room had no choice but to acquiesce.

Dupree was notoriously vague about his beginnings, claiming in some interviews that his parents died in a fire set by the Ku Klux Klan, at other times saying that the blaze was accidental. Whatever the circumstances of the tragic conflagration, Dupree grew up in New Orleans’ Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys (Louis Armstrong also spent his formative years there). Learning his trade from barrelhouse 88s ace Willie “Drive ’em Down” Hall, Dupree left the Crescent City in 1930 for Chicago and then Detroit. By 1935, he was boxing professionally in Indianapolis, battling in an estimated 107 bouts.

In 1940, Dupree made his recording debut for Chicago A&R man extraordinaire Lester Melrose and OKeh Records. Dupree‘s 1940-1941 output for the Columbia subsidiary exhibited a strong New Orleans tinge despite the Chicago surroundings; his driving “Junker’s Blues” was later cleaned up as Fats Domino‘s 1949 debut, “The Fat Man.” After a stretch in the Navy during World War II (he was a Japanese P.O.W. for two years), Dupree decided tickling the 88s beat pugilism any old day. He spent most of his time in New York and quickly became a prolific recording artist, cutting for Continental, Joe Davis, Alert, Apollo, and Red Robin (where he cut a blasting “Shim Sham Shimmy” in 1953), often in the company of Brownie McGhee. Contracts meant little; Dupree masqueraded as Brother Blues on Abbey, Lightnin’ Jr. on Empire, and the truly imaginative Meat Head Johnson for Gotham and Apex.

King Records corralled Dupree in 1953 and held onto him through 1955 (the year he enjoyed his only R&B chart hit, the relaxed “Walking the Blues.”) Dupree‘s King output rates with his very best; the romping “Mail Order Woman,” “Let the Doorbell Ring,” and “Big Leg Emma’s” contrasting with the rural “Me and My Mule” (Dupree‘s vocal on the latter emphasizing a harelip speech impediment for politically incorrect pseudo-comic effect).

After a year on RCA’s Groove and Vik subsidiaries, Dupree made a masterpiece LP for Atlantic. 1958’s Blues From the Gutter is a magnificent testament to Dupree‘s barrelhouse background, boasting marvelous readings of “Stack-O-Lee,” “Junker’s Blues,” and “Frankie & Johnny” beside the risqué “Nasty Boogie.” Dupree was one of the first bluesmen to leave his native country for a less racially polarized European existence in 1959. He lived in a variety of countries overseas, continuing to record prolifically for Storyville, British Decca (with John Mayall and Eric Clapton lending a hand at a 1966 date), and many other firms.

 

Perhaps sensing his own mortality, Dupree returned to New Orleans in 1990 for his first visit in 36 years. While there, he played the Jazz & Heritage Festival and laid down a zesty album for Bullseye Blues, Back Home in New Orleans. Two more albums of new material were captured by the company the next year prior to the pianist’s death in January of 1992. Jack Dupree was a champ to the very end. (AMG)

 

Track Listing:

Memphis Slim

01 Grinder Man Blues – 1946

03 Old Taylor – 1941

04 Jasper’s Gal – 1941

05 You Got To Help Me Some – 1941

06 Maybe I’ll Loan You A Dime – 1941

07 Whiskey And Gin Blues – 1941

08 Send Me Your Love – 1941

09 Don’t Ration My Love – 1946

12 Blue And Lonesome – 1948

13 New Long Down Dog – 1940

‘Champion’ Jack Dupree

14 Cabbage Greens N° 1 – 1940

16 My Cabin Inn – 1941

17 Bad Health Blues

18 That’s All Right – 1941

19 Gibing Blues – 1941

20 Dupree Shake Dance – 1941

21 Junker Blues – 1941

22 Big Time Mama – 1941

23 Hurry Down Sunshine – 1941

24 Jackie P. Blues – 1941

25 Heavy Heart Blues – 1941

*#!+

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