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Blues Matters And Platters

A selective guide to finding the best Blues

By Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor

Brenda Boykin performs regularly at the annual Monterey Jazz Festival and the Monterey Bay Blues Festival; almost every weekend, she's singing somewhere at clubs in the Bay Area with Home Cookin', her small combo. She is the featured singer on two CDs with the Johnny Nocturne Band: Wailin' Daddy (1992) and Shake 'Em Up (1994).

Chris Cain calls his singing/guitar-playing style "Memphis Blues," which is appropriate, since Cain's father is from Memphis. He performs regularly in the South Bay when he's not on tour--catch him at the Agenda in San Jose or Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz. His latest CD is Somewhere Along the Way. Lowell Fulson plays live gigs "less frequently these days" than he used to. He's a treat if you can catch him, a bridge to the originators of the Blues genre.

Johnny Otis is a modern Renaissancer. Aside from his musical accomplishments, he is a sculptor and painter of some note, produces his own brand of apple juice, has worked at various times as a record producer, disc jockey, TV show host, was ordained as a minister and comes complete with his own Web site. He is also the author of Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (Wesleyan University Press, 1993), a book that chronicles his years on the music scene in South Central L.A. The original recording of "Willie and the Hand Jive" is available on several rock & roll retrospective collections, and Otis has a CD of African-American dance band music from the '30s and '40s: Spirit of the Black Territory Bands. He performs with his band every Saturday night at the Fun House in Santa Rosa.

Kamau Seitu can be found playing drums with various jazz and Blues combos in San Francisco and the East Bay. He is presently seeking a producer for his album of original jazz compositions.

There are countless CD collections of Blues songs and artists. Among my favorites are Chess Blues, a four-CD collection of Chess artists from 1947 to 1967, and Legends of the Blues, Volume One (CBS Records), which includes cuts from such legendary singers as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Peetie Wheatstraw, Memphis Minnie and Robert Johnson. One for the ages is Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's original "Hound Dog" on Volume Three of the Blues Masters Essential Blues Collection (Rhino Records).

Still the definitive study of American Blues music is Amiri Baraka's Blues People (Apollo Editions, 1963), written under his original name: LeRoi Jones. A little dated, but the best book yet to help one understand the racial/political/cultural forces that created first Blues and then jazz. An insider's view of the Blues music business is given in I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story (Da Capo Press, 1989). Dixon was the African-American behind-the-scenes talent with Chess Records, which recorded the top Blues artists in the '40s, '50s and '60s. Dixon wrote some of the best Blues songs of the time; Brenda Boykin calls him "the Zora Neale Hurston of songwriters; somebody who really put black images and language into his music." "When the fish scent fills the air, there'll be snuff juice everywhere," from Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle," is one of my favorite Blues lines ever, capturing the spirit (and flavor) of a Saturday-night dance in one of those old juke joints.

The just-released Little Blues Book by Brian Robertson (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) is a keeper. Robertson has collected selections of verses from a couple of hundred Blues songs, interspersing them with anecdotes and well-researched and highly readable explanations of the genre. Illustrations by cartoonist R. Crumb are worth the price of admission, along with the line from Johnny Winter's "Give It Back": "Give me back that wig I bought you, give me back the one glass eye. Give me back the teeth I loaned you, baby don't you say good-bye. When I take my peg-leg, you gonna fall right down and cry."

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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