Tag Archives: blues

Why did he chuckle?

“I have a friend, Big Bill Broonzy the great blues singer. And Big Bill and many elderly black men of a certain age were jacks of all trades. They were the grandsons of slaves and they could be masons and carpenters and electricians. Big Bill was a welder, and a very good one. And he taught this young white kid how to weld. The day the kid learned how to weld correctly is when they fired Bill. And he chuckles. Now why did he chuckle? It’s a safety valve.”

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Blue Monday

It’s only to be expected that a blues singer who was born in Maine and records for a Canadian label would stand the music on its head, but that’s what Samuel James does most entertainingly on his two recent discs: Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy and his new one, For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen. James is a superb fingerstyle guitarist and harp player, but for me the biggest selling point is the antic way he twists and remolds blues forms, acknowledging the past but using it very much to his own purposes.

Here’s James playing “Baby-Doll” from the first record:

James has crafted himself a trickster stage persona — imagine a halfway point between Keb Mo and Flavor Flav — and his songs are usually in storytelling mode. Two recurring characters, Big Black Ben and Sugar Smallhouse, liven things up in the new release. Ben tricks a bunch of Klansmen into shooting each other instead of him,  while Smallhouse shows up at his girlfriend’s place on Valentine’s Day with nothing but excuses: I bought you a puppy but it fell down a well, I bought you a rose but I just planted it and it needs time to grow, etc. If you’re tired of overly reverential blues (or punishingly bombastic guitar solos) then Samuel James will be a breath of fresh air.

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Blue Monday

Joanne Shaw Taylor performs “Kiss the Ground Goodbye” from her debut release, White Sugar. I only recently heard about her, but on the basis of these clips I’m filing her under topics for further study.

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Blue Monday

Willie Dixon gets a co-writing credit on Bob Dylan’s new record, which is only appropriate: Dixon wrote so many blues classics that when he titled his memoir I Am the Blues, it was simply a statement of fact. Here he is performing “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” for a mid-Sixties television broadcast in Europe.

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Blue Monday

During his talks on “Bob Dylan & the Poetry of the Blues,” Michael Gray highlighted the way Dylan turned “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes for You,” a vintage bit of hokum by the Mississippi Sheiks, a Depression era string band probably best know for its tune “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

Now here’s Dylan’s version from World Gone Wrong:

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Snooks Eaglin

Guitarist, blues great and New Orleans notable Snooks Eaglin died recently at the age of 72. The clip above shows him performing “Talk to Your Daughter.” Here’s the very knowledgable obituary by Keith Spera of the Times-Picayune:

Snooks Eaglin, the idiosyncratic New Orleans rhythm & blues guitarist with fleet-fingered dexterity and a boundless repertoire, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 72.

“He was the most New Orleans of all the New Orleans acts that are still living,” said Mid-City Lanes owner John Blancher.

Even in a city and musical community known for eccentric characters, Mr. Eaglin stood out. Extremely private, he lived with his family in St. Rose. For many years, he refused to perform on Friday nights, reportedly because of religious reasons.

The digits on Mr. Eaglin’s right hand flailed at seemingly impossible angles as he finger-picked and strummed a guitar’s strings. A set by the so-called “Human Jukebox” could range from Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” to Bad Company’s “Ready for Love.”

He thrived on feedback from onlookers, gleefully took requests and challenged his musicians to keep up. Utterly unselfconscious, he would render fellow guitarists slack-jawed with a blistering run, then announce from the stage that he needed to use the bathroom.

Mr. Eaglin was born Fird Eaglin Jr. in 1937. As an infant, glaucoma robbed him of his sight. He earned his “Snooks” nickname after his mischievous behavior recalled a radio character named Baby Snooks.

As a toddler, he received his first instrument, a hand-carved ukulele strung with rubber bands. As a boy, he learned to pick a guitar to songs on the radio. He attended the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge. By 14, he had dropped out to work full-time as a musician.

His first steady job was with the Flamingos, a popular seven-piece rhythm & blues band that also included a young Allen Toussaint on piano. Post-Flamingos, Mr. Eaglin briefly billed himself as Lil’ Ray Charles. In the late 1950s, he performed on street corners and recorded two acoustic albums for a folk label. His studio work included the guitar parts on Sugarboy Crawford’s “Jockamo.”

In the early 1960s, Mr. Eaglin released a handful of singles for Imperial Records under the name “Ford” Eaglin. He logged three years in the house band at the Playboy Club off Bourbon Street.

After the British Invasion decimated the market for New Orleans rhythm & blues, he semi-retired. The launch of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970 brought with it fresh opportunity.

Mr. Eaglin performed with Professor Longhair during the pianist’s “comeback” gigs. He also contributed to Longhair’s landmark “New Orleans House Party” album and the Wild Magnolias’ early recordings.

In 1987, Mr. Eaglin released “Baby, You Can Get Your Gun!,” his first album on Black Top Records. Several more well-received albums on Black Top further heightened his profile.

His annual appearances at Jazz Fest were hugely popular. In addition to legions of local fans, Mr. Eaglin’s admirers included prominent musicians from around the globe.

It was Robert Plant, in fact, who first made Blancher aware of Mr. Eaglin.

In 1990, not long after he took over the Mid-City Lanes, Blancher received a call from Plant, who wanted to throw an after-party at the bowling alley. He asked Blancher to book Mr. Eaglin, whom he met years earlier when the guitarist performed at a party in New Orleans for Plant’s former band, Led Zeppelin.

The after-party didn’t happen, but the Mid-City Lanes became Mr. Eaglin’s preferred venue. He played as frequently as once a month.

“He’s an irreplaceable guy,” Blancher said. “More celebrities came to see Snooks than anyone. His reputation was as big as anyone’s in New Orleans. And he wouldn’t travel, so if you wanted to see Snooks you had to come to Rock ‘n Bowl.”

During the 2000 Jazz Fest, Bonnie Raitt showed up at the Mid-City Lanes to hear Mr. Eaglin. He exclaimed from the stage, “Listen to this, Bonnie! You gonna learn something tonight, girl!” She later lent a hand by replacing a broken string on his guitar.

Blancher would often pick up Mr. Eaglin in St. Rose and drive him to and from shows at the Rock ‘n Bowl. Along the way Mr. Eaglin regaled him with stories.

Among the most infamous is the time Mr. Eaglin drove the Flamingos home following a Saturday night gig in Donaldsonville. The musicians were so intoxicated that they decided their blind guitarist was the most qualified driver.

Mr. Eaglin claimed he navigated the curves of the road from memory. The crunch of gravel under the tires warned him when the ’49 Studebaker strayed onto the shoulder. The story concludes with Mr. Eaglin pulling up to his house early Sunday morning and his mother suggesting the musicians proceed directly to church.

Mr. Eaglin met his future wife, Dorethea “Dee” Eaglin, at a Flamingos gig during Mardi Gras 1958. They married in 1961 and she became his constant companion and confidant. Dee would sit nearby as her husband performed.

Blancher was among the few music industry figures that Mr. Eaglin allowed to visit his house. But even he was unaware of the guitarist’s deteriorating health. Blancher learned in January that Mr. Eaglin had been battling prostate cancer.

Mr. Eaglin last performed at the Mid-City Lanes in July. Blancher spoke to him recently about booking a show in March. “He said, ‘I’m going to wait until Jazz Fest. I’m not going to do any gigs until then,'” Blancher said. “I was surprised by that.”

Mr. Eaglin checked into Ochsner Medical Center last week. With regret, he told his step-daughter, Carolyn Gioustover, “I’ve got to call Quint Davis and tell him I won’t make it to Jazz Fest.”

He went into cardiac arrest on Tuesday.

Mr. Eaglin often said his mother took care of him until Dee took over. He died on his mother’s birthday.

Survivors include his wife; a daughter, Stacey Eaglin Hunter; a step-son, Allen Ancar III; and two step-daughters, Carolyn Gioustover and Deborah Ancar Randolph.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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Of mice and mensch

despereaux

Frame by frame, The Tale of Despereaux stands with Wall-E as one of the most beautiful animated films I’ve ever seen: a riot of colors, textures and movements rendered with a deft balance of painterly realism and cartoonish exaggeration. But scene by scene, The Tale of Despereaux is the single most tedious movie I’ve seen this year, and that includes the two Tarkovsky flicks I rented in order to placate a film geek buddy, of which one had me snarling “Fucking end already!” at the screen. Instead of the witty, economical storytelling of Wall-E, Despereaux gives us three dour, slow-moving plotlines in a tangled mess involving a mouse with heroic dreams, a rat with a guilty conscience, a princess who wishes it would rain and a king who hates soup because his wife died of a heart attack and fell into her bowl of broth after bring scared by a rat. Hardly a moment goes by without some breathtaking visual treat or gorgeous detail, but there’s no fun in this thing, and the plodding story makes it borderline unwatchable.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Cadillac Records — based on the rise and fall of Chess Records, the storied Chicago label that straddled the line between “race music” and rock’n’roll — didn’t make more of a splash. The sheer amount of talent on the screen is remarkable: Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess, half mensch and half exploiter of a roster of historic blues and R&B performers;  Jeffrey Wright as electric blues star Muddy Waters; Eamon Walker as the overpowering Howlin’ Wolf; Mos Def in a hilarious turn as Chuck Berry. A lot of blues fans I know resisted the casting of Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, and while I’m no great fan of Beyonce’s corporate R&B dance music, she’s quite good in the role and there’s no denying her vocal power — or her ability to fill out those skin-tight dresses. (We never get to see the later, morbidly obese Etta; I guess Beyonce didn’t want to do a De Niro and pack on the pounds for authenticity’s sake.) And the idea of casting Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, the portly bassist who quickly figured out that songwriting was the path to wealth, was genius enough to let me forgive the omission of Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Darnell Martin’s script (she also directed) skims over a lot and fictionalizes a little more (Little Walter never casually shot an imitator, as far as I know), but if it’s documentary you want, read Spinning Blues Into Gold by Nadine Cohodas.  Martin gets a lot more into the film than I expected to see, maybe even too much — many significant events are skimmed over, particularly the late-arriving British love for blues and the appearance of the worshipful Rolling Stones at the Chess office. But from the early scene showing the arrival of Alan Lomax, who gave Muddy the first chance to hear his own singing and realize there were bigger things in store for him than plantation work, Cadillac Records had me grinning like a fool. It’s a rare film that seems too short instead of too long, and if there’s a longer version of Cadillac Records destined for DVD release down the line, I want to see it.

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Blue Monday (The Day After)

Shame on me for missing the 20th anniversary of the death of Son House, collaborator with Charley Patton and role model for Muddy Waters. The clip above is Son House performing “Death Letter,” and the clip below is “John the Revelator.” Let Michael Gray fill you in on the rest.

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