Monday, December 08, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 57: Blues

Sometime in late 1951 (no exact dates are given)  Prestige recorded a few blues singers. Much, much later, in 1959, Bob Weinstock would launch a separate Bluesville imprint, but in this early postwar era there wasn't much of a blues scene in New York. The Great Migration, which started after World War I, brought many blues singers north, but mostly not to New York. Bluesmen from the Delta tended to go straight north, to Chicago and Detroit; from Texas and Oklahoma, they mostly gravitated toward the West Coast, most often to Los Angeles. Many New Orleans jazzmen, inspired by King Oliver, went to Chicago, and from there some -- most notably Louis Armstrong -- came to New York. But jazz was a different species. 
The postwar blues scene in Chicago coalesced around Chess Records, mostly. In California a lot of blues singers recorded for the Bihari brothers' Modern/RPM labels. In New York, in 1948, the Ertegun brothers and Jerry Wexler went to Washington, DC, to try to sign Ruth Brown to a new blues label they were starting. Brown was a jazz singer, whose repertoire was mostly standards. "Why me?" She is said to have asked. "I don't sing the blues. I hate the blues."
"Don't worry," they said. "We're going to be doing a whole new kind of blues."

And they did sign her, and they did create a new kind of blues, and she was as good as they thought she'd be, and Atlantic became known as "the House that Ruth built."
Wexler and the Erteguns and Cliffie Stone and the other folks who crafted the Atlantic sound had to create a new kind of blues, because they didn't have a native sound to build on, the way the Chess brothers did in Chicago, bringing the music of the streets and the small clubs into their studio. New York was a jazz town. It became a doowop town, as that style came up from the streets. But blues, not so much.
The blues singers who came to New York, like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, like Lead Belly, were mostly presented as folk singers, not blues singers, which meant that their main audiences were white leftists, and also that they were frequently recorded with white folk singers like Woody Guthrie. One of Sonny Terry's first gigs in New York was in the Broadway musical "Finian's Rainbow." When Leadbelly appeared at the Apollo, audiences didn't like him much. This made for an interesting dynamic. The blues is a music of hard realism -- its message is essentially that life is tough and it's going to stay that way. Urban white leftists tended to believe, and wanted their music to reflect it, that the world could be made a better place. The job of a professional musician is basically to give the public what it wants, so blues singers started writing songs --and they were great songs -- about Washington being a bourgeois town, and how we need to get together and break up the old Jim Crow.

So when Bob Weinstock ventured outside of the jazz realm he knew best to record blues and R&B, it was a little bit of a hit-or-miss proposition. In jazz he had the finest musicians in the world to choose from; in blues, things were a little less clear-cut. Which is not to say the choices weren't good ones, because they were very good.
H-Bomb Ferguson came out of a tradition that was essentially Midwestern, urban blues but not the Chicago urban blues of electric guitars and harmonicas. This was the jazz-based urban blues that was built on piano and horns, preeminently the tenor sax, and went back to Bessie Smith and the so-called classic blues singers. More specifically, it had its roots in the Kansas City of Big Joe Turner (who was soon to record for Atlantic) and Jimmy Rushing, and was carried on into the rhythm and blues era by performers like Wynonie Harris and Amos Miburn. 
Ferguson came to New York with Joe Liggins' Honeydrippers (West Coast R&B). He stayed for a while, was a protege of Nipsey Russell, then the MC at the Baby Grand, a legendary Harlem jazz club. He stayed long enough to make this one record for Prestige, and a few for Savoy, another jazz label that was dipping a toe into rhythm and blues, though Savoy would dip much more than a toe, becoming one of the important R&B labels. He didn't stay in New York, building most of his career in the Midwest. He never had the career of Harris or Milburn, but he made some good records, and this is one of them.
They generally didn't give a complete band list for blues and R&B records, and this one is no exception. The band was led by Jack "the Bear" Parker, a jazz drummer and R& bandleader, about whom I couldn't get much in the way of biographical info, although he was a solid player and got a lot of work.
They recorded ten tunes for Prestige that day, but only released two of them -- too bad, but I guess they'd decided they were t going to get behind Ferguson - and in fact in the same week that Prestige released its H-Bomb Ferguson single, Billboard's R&B page had another Ferguson release, on Atlas, as one of its picks.
The other Prestige blues sessions of December 1951 featured Brownie McGhee and Ralph Willis.
Eleven songs were recorded, of which four were released under McGhee's name, four under Willis's name, and three never released. Today on Spotify, all can be found by searching under Ralph Willis.
These are the folk blues of acoustic instruments--guitar and harmonica, like the Chess bluesmen, but we know, from the famous reception given to Bob Dylan at Newport, what East Coast folkies thought of electric amplification.

Brownie McGhee and Ralph Willis both were practitioners of what came to be known as Piedmont
blues, a style pioneered by Blind Boy Fuller. McGhee and Sonny Terry actually tried their hand at rhythm and blues when they first came to New York -- and McGhee's brother, Stick, made an R&B classic for Atlantic, "Drinkin' Wine Spo-de-o-dee"-- but the folk blues were where the market was. Later, in the 60s, when rural blues were rediscovered, it was the Delta blues of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House that drew the attention, and except for McGhee and Terry, who had attained legendary status, other Piedmont blues singers like Willis and Alec Seward (Stewart) saw their reputations eclipsed.

All four of the Willis sides were released on two 78s. McGhee cut seven altogether, three of which went unreleased. Of the others, "Cold Chills" and "Amen" came out on Prestige, "It's Too Late" and "I'll Never Love Again" on the short-lived Par Presentation label.

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