Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Blues As Cultural Compass

If the blues is not the foundation of all modern pop music, it comes pretty damn close. Jazz was an outgrowth of the blues, originally adding brass to the 12 bar structure of the blues. Country music was born alongside the blues, and, as marketing worked in those early days, differentiated primarily only in the race of its performers. Rock and soul are lineal descendents of the blues, and their offspring, metal and hip-hop, owe their heritage to the genre. In fact, even modern classical music pays homage to the blues. Had it not been for the blues, there would have been no Count Basie, no George Gershwin, no Sinatra, no Hank Williams, no Elvis, no Beatles, no Stones, no Led Zeppelin, no Beastie Boys, no Springsteen, no Jay-Z—at least not as we know them.

The blues is as integrated into our modern psyche at least as much as Prozac, and as such, flows through us largely unnoticed. But it’s always there, lying dormant until some contemporary riff awakens our collective unconsciousness, and we realize it was inspired by something born in the Mississippi Delta, and nurtured across the States, particularly in Chicago. And from there, the blues spread across the world, finding an unlikely home in England, where it spawned a new legion of fans who became the next vanguard of rock and roll.

Late in 2008, UK-based Acrobat Records branched out with a series of reissues available for the first time in America, dubbed collectively as “The Premier Collection.” The U.S. label debut features 15 reissues include jazz/big band, blues, country, R&B, doo-wop and rock. But what really caught my attention were two blues titles by Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, previously unavailable domestically.

Howlin’ Wolf: Rockin’ the Blues Live in Germany 1964 was recorded in Bremen, Germany, and was part of the American Folk Blues Festival that enthralled Europe at the time. The Wolf was at his height during this set, maybe bolstered by the fact that the Rolling Stones had just topped the charts with their cove of his “Little Red Rooster.”

That song’s not included on this set, but the nine tracks here are impressive in their own right, and immediately recognizable to fans of blues or rock. They include Willie Dixon’s “Shake It for Me,” Wolf’s “Rockin’ the Blues,” and the duo’s collaboration “Howlin’ for My Darlin’.” The quartet of musicians backing the Wolf up are legendary in blues circles—frequent cohort Willie Dixon on bass, Sunnyland Slim on piano, longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and Clifton James on drums.

This is hardly a definitive Howlin’ Wolf collection, however. The recording is left intact from the way it was released in 1964, which means its mono, and there’s nothing to suggest it was recorded before a live audience. In an odd way, though, that endears it to the context of the time. What remains intact is the raw power of Howlin' Wolf’s voice, and the virtuosity of the band. This is a rare grouping, and listening to them jamming seamlessly makes up for any shortcomings in the editing. Consider it a primer on Howlin’ Wolf’s inestimable influence on the evolution of rock.

While Howlin’ Wolf’s large footprint is all over rock, it’s B.B. King who’s brought the blues into the mainstream of pop culture. B.B. King and His Orchestra Live is a testament to that premise. Recorded in 1983 in Cannes as part of a jazz concert that included Pat Metheny and the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the album is part soul revue, part big band jazz and a very large part blues, all wrapped into a palatable package.

King’s band director at the time, the late trumpeter Calvin Owens sets the tone for the concert, with a funky extended intro that heralds King’s arrival to the stage. It gives Owens and King an opportunity to expand on the musical idioms that the blues introduced—particularly big band jazz and soul, even touches of country. In fact, a third of the set is an instrumental collage of those influences. ”Why I Sing the Blues” and “Darling, You Know I Love You” are performed as instrumentals once King takes the stage, and he delights in playful guitar variations as he performs them.

From the extended intro, King smoothly segues into his recognizable repertoire, with powerful renditions of King standards, such as “Everyday I Have the Blues,” “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss.” Perhaps most telling is his cover of Louis Jordan’s Caledonia.” It’s here that King blurs the lines between jazz and blues, not unlike Jordan did when he blurred the lines between R&B and jazz on his original.

The best way to experience the blues is to hear it performed live, preferably in a club setting. There’s something about the genre that dares the listener to step inside the performer’s heart and brain, and discover we all share common joys and pains. While B.B. King and His Orchestra Live tries valiantly to create that experience, it falls short, due to editing that reduces audience reaction to cross-fades detween the numbers. The performance of King and his orchestra, however, make up for those shortcomings.

While neither the Howlin' Wolf or the B.B. King releases are essential in a blues collection, both offer insights into how the blues have been integrated into our mindset. Howlin' Wolf shoved the blues into British rock, which, in turn, returned it to America and transformed American rock, causing musicians to research their unknown roots. B.B. King has pretty much singlehandedly brought the blues into the 21st century, where it, more than ever, is the foundation for almost everything we hear from presidential inaugurations to pharmaceutical commercials.

The blues is far from being dead. It’s in a constant state of evolution.


Mighty Sam McClain said...

Please when you read this, let us MSM know how we can send His new CD for your review. My last email attenpt to the address I had or that you last wrote us from, came back to us. Sam would be very pleased to have your thoughts on "Betcha Didn't Know".
McClain Productions

Ray Ellis said...


Email me at and I'll be happy to send you shipping information. Look forward to hearing from you soon.