1960 Blues: Prestige Bluesville

In the previous article we discussed Prestige Records in 1960 and how the label started to diversify its portfolio of albums with specialty sub labels. Moodsville was geared towards jazz audiences that wanted something easier on the ear than a blowing session, and Swingville for those seeking some of the traditional jazz flavor from days before bebop entered the scene. Another specialty label, and my favorite of the lot, was Bluesville. It focused mostly on acoustic music of the folk-blues type, and in many cases gave new life to artists who by that time have been virtually forgotten and long absent from a recording studio. Let’s take a look at albums the label released in its first year of operation.

The first artist to record and release an album on Bluesville was Al Smith with the album Hear My Blues, BVLP 1001. Smith came through a recommendation from Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, who at the time had his Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis Showcases series with Prestige. It is an interesting choice for the label’s debut, as Al Smith was not a blues singer, and definitely not one of the old guard as is the case with most of the releases on the label.

Al Smith was born in 1936 in Columbus, Ohio. He moved in his childhood to New Orleans, where he learned to sing the gospel and play the piano. In 1955 he relocated to New York and performed with various gospel choirs. He was also part of the musical group Gospel Clefs.

During a jam session at the Key Club in Newark, New Jersey, Smith caught the attention of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, who brought him into the recording studio in September 1959 for the first time to record this album here. He is accompanied by the then-popular team of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on tenor sax and Shirley Scott on organ. Together they recorded a number of albums for Prestige during that period.

Al Smith – vocals

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis – tenor saxophone

Shirley Scott – organ

Wendell Marshall – bass

Arthur Edgehill – drums

Also in 1959, Bluesville became the outlet that gave Willie Dixon the opportunity to record his first solo LP. A very late debut for a musician with a career of 20 years and a legendary run at Chess Records, a period in which he wrote classics such as Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You, Little Red Rooster and Spoonful. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he teamed up with pianist Memphis Slim on recording sessions and live dates.

Memphis Slim also had a parallel career of about 20 years as a Chicago blues musician, recording with various labels and releasing singles. Interestingly he also did not record his debut LP until that period.

Although the two were constantly touring, they did not spend much time in New York City, their music not sought after at the Big Apple. However Prestige seized the opportunity of a break between flights and rushed them into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with a number of accompanying musicians to record the album Willie’s Blues. It was cut in a quick two-hour session.

Willie Dixon – double bass, vocals

Memphis Slim – piano

Gus Johnson – drums

Wally Richardson – guitar

Al Ashby – tenor saxophone

Harold Ashby – tenor saxophone

One more blues singer who has been active in the music business for some time and only in 1960 got to record her debut solo album with Bluesville is Mildred Anderson. In the early 1950s she joined Bill Doggett’s band for three years and had a hit with that group singing the tune No More in Life. About her signing she said, “It’s this way about the blues. I listen to Ella and Dinah, catching their phrases and breaks. But the way I work with a tune and a lyric is a style all my own. It comes from inside me.”

In the late 1950s Anderson worked as a solo singer and performed at many night clubs, honing her skills in delivering the blues: “I do a song the way I feel it and I can usually sense what an audience wants when I walk out there in front of a mike. I try to bring it right down front for them and I can tell when I’m getting the message across.”

Mildred Anderson recorded two albums on Bluesville, both in 1960. The first is Person to Person, one more “Eddie Lockjaw Davis showcases” album and the second No More in Life, featuring her hit of the same name.

Mildred Anderson – vocals

Al Sears – tenor saxophone

Robert Banks – organ

Lord Westbrook – guitar

Leonard Gaskin – bass

Bobby Donaldson – drums

Roosevelt Sykes was born in Arkansas in 1906, and after his family moved to St. Louis he began playing the church organ. He quickly switched to the piano: “I don’t play the organ anymore. A fellow has to pound on something, you’ve got to mash it.” At the age of 15 he was playing piano blues all over town: “When I did get started, I wouldn’t do nothing else, just play piano….If I didn’t play, I didn’t eat.” He was nicknamed “The Honeydripper” early in life for his genial personality, and also scored a hit by that name. He moved to Chicago in 1941, where he started recording for a number of labels and formed his band the Honeydrippers. After a stint in New Orleans he moved back to Chicago, where he came to the attention of producer Esmond Edwards at Bluesville through another recording artist on the label, Memphis Slim.

His first album on Bluesville, The Return of Roosevelt Sykes, was recorded in 1960 and marked his return to the recording studio after being absent from that facility for five years. The same year he recorded his second album, the aptly named The Honeydripper.

Roosevelt Sykes – piano, vocals

King Curtis – tenor saxophone

Robert Banks – organ

Leonard Gaskin – bass

Belton Evans – drums

If a five year absence from a recording studio sounds like a long time for an active musician, what about 26 years? Such is the case of guitar player Elmer Snowden. The album Blues & Ballads by Lonnie Johnson with Elmer Snowden brings together two blues artists that as chance would have it, were both born in the year 1900.

Elmer Snowden started his musical career as a jazz banjo player in a period when finding gigs was very hard: “We had to split a hot dog five ways and nobody would book us.” But finding gigs he did and eventually led several successful bands in the 1920s and 1930s, and also accompanied Bessie Smith on a number of her records. His last commercial recording prior to this album here was in 1934 for the Bluebird label.

Lonnie Johnson had a wonderful career as a guitarist, making lots of recordings between 1915 and 1954 on labels including Okeh, Columbia and Decca. He recorded duets with Charlie Christian in 1929, and played 12-string guitar with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. Quite a history right there.

With all this history, it is amazing to discover what Chris Albertson wrote in the liner notes to the album: “When I first came across Lonnie Johnson he was working as a janitor, all but forgotten. It was Elmer Snowden who put me on his track. I was interviewing Elmer on my radio show when I played an old record by Lonnie which I followed up with the remark: ‘I wonder whatever happened to Lonnie Johnson?’ Elmer Replied: ‘I saw him in the supermarket the other day!”

Lonnie Johnson – electric guitar, vocals

Elmer Snowden – acoustic guitar

Wendell Marshall – bass

Here is a cover of Bessie Smith’s classic, Backwater Blues, which Lonnie Johnson first recorded back in 1927:

Shakey Jake moved as a youth to Chicago from Arkansas during the depression era and throughout his adolescence earned his living selling newspapers, shining shoes and working in a gas station. He was an unschooled musician who started playing music relatively late in life, influenced by the music of Sonny Boy Williamson. He got his nickname when he augmented his meager income of $8 a week by shooting craps. “Shake ’em, Jake” his crapshooting buddies used to call out.

In May of 1960 Shakey Jake recorded a session that was organized by producer Esmond Edwards, who partnered the blues singer and harmonica player with two jazzmen, organist Jack McDuff and guitarist Bill Jennings. The resulting album was Good Times – the vocal and harmonica blues of Shakey Jake.

Shakey Jake – harmonica, vocals

Jack McDuff – organ

Bill Jennings – guitar

Guitarist Brownie McGhee met blind harmonica player Sonny Terry when recording for Okeh in 1940 and 1941. They met again later in New York City. McGhee remembers: “I hung around in Harlem and started to play in the streets. That’s where Sonny and I started working together. He started singing with me in 1943. I was making pockets full of money, and I said, ‘You get half of this money, baby. If I do five songs, you’ll do five, we’ll split 50-50.’” The working relationship became one of the longest in blues history and lasted 30 years.

The two were a natural choice for Bluesville Records in its first year of operation and recorded no less than four albums for the label that year: Down Home Blues, Folk and Blues, Blues All Around My Head and   Blues in My Soul.

Years later McGhee reflected on the music they made together: “From the time we got together and started working I found that I could not tell him what to do. I had to play with him what he played, and he played behind me what I played. And he supported me the best of his abilities, which was excellent. It was his way, and you couldn’t beat that. I won’t never find another harmonica player like Sonny, because there is no more like him. Sonny was the one and only.”

Sonny Terry – harmonica, vocals

Brownie McGhee – guitar, vocals

Gary Davis was born in 1896 in South Carolina, blind since infancy. At an early age he mastered the guitar and later excelled in the Piedmont blues guitar style. He plays with only two fingers, a thumb and forefinger. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in North Carolina in 1933 and started focusing on gospel songs. In 1935 Davis recorded a series of remarkable songs in the tradition of religious street performers after which he did not visit a recording studio for 20 years. On August 24 1960 he was brought to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and recorded the album Harlem Street Singer.

When he was asked what key he mostly plays in, he said: “I play all over the guitar!” His unique style also utilizes a technique used by many religious and blues singers of the 1920 ad 1930s, omitting the singing of a word or phrase and letting the instrument become the singing voice.

Here is Death Don’t Have No Mercy, a dark song that was later covered by Bob Dylan and famously by the Grateful dead.

Blind Gary Davis – guitar, vocals

Our next artist comes from Texas, where he was born in 1912. Samuel John Hopkins, better known as Lightnin’ Hopkins, made his first guitar from a cigar box and chicken wire at the age of eight. Having experienced all sides of hardships growing up in that state in the early 20th century, his songs are short stories telling that life: “My songs are all practically true songs. They are about something real to my way of knowing. Like all that has happened to me is liable to get into my songs. In my family they tell all about my grandfather was a slave that hung himself to escape bad treatment. Or that time it was trouble up home, or when they got me on the country road gang, or had to say goodbye to some good girl – all that’s liable to come up in my songs. Call ‘em true songs.”

Long hours of informal playing as a musician without a backing band contributed to Hopkins’s unique style. His fingerstyle technique combines bass, rhythm, lead, and percussion parts played at the same time.

In 1960 Lightnin’ Hopkins recorded two albums for Bluesville, one of them a session he shared with Sonny Terry, resulting in the album Last Night Blues.

Lightnin’ Hopkins – guitar, vocals

Sonny Terry – harmonica, vocals

Leonard Gaskin – bass

Belton Evans – drums

One more album in this review by an artist we already met earlier as part of a duo, this time on a solo recording. Sonny Terry was born in Greensboro, Georgia, and picked up the blues harp at an early age. He became blind at the age of twelve which forced him to quit farm work and focus on music.

In 1938 producer John Hammond invited Sonny Terry to participate in his now legendary “From Spirituals to Swing” concert. Along names such as Count Basie, Joe Turner, Big Bill Broonzy and Benny Goodman, Sonny Terry stood alone on stage with his harmonica and kept the audience captivated. Soon after he connected with Brownie McGhee, a story told earlier in the article. In 1960, along with making a number of recording with McGhee on Bluesville, Sonny Terry also found time to record a solo album.

From the album sleeve notes, written by Joe Goldberg:

In some of his phrasing, in the kind of infectious swing he gets on My Baby Done Gone, as well as the repetitious ending of that number, can be seen the sources of the vein that Ray Charles had mined so successfully. As far as the lyrics to his songs are concerned, Sonny is an exponent of what blues scholars call the sticking theory, which means that a song has been put together out of phrases that exist in the common stockpile of the blues, but these phrases have been altered here, by the force of Sonny’s personality, into totally new stories.

Sonny Terry – harmonica, vocals

J. C. Burris – harmonica

Sticks McGhee – guitar

Belton Evans – drums

You may also be interested in reading about jazz albums recorded in 1960:

Categories: A Year in Music

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