Hearing is believing with vintage blues releases

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 2006, 12:00am

Back in the 1930s, when jazz 78s were shipped within or from the US, blues discs were often packed around them to insulate them from damage. In some ways, not much has changed. Reissues of classic blues on CD have generally been treated much more casually than those of their jazz cousins.

It's a relief, therefore, to see that beginning to change.

There were some decent CD reissues in the 90s, of course, most notably the CBS Roots 'N' Blues series which included the first complete Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson packages, but for the serious blues collector who wanted well-presented editions of classic sides there wasn't much available until recent years.

The first serious step towards setting this to rights was the Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues - A Musical Journey boxed set of five discs, released in 2003 to coincide with the Year of the Blues and the series of films by blues fan directors that Scorsese oversaw to mark it.

Stretching from Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues recorded in 1920 to a duet between Keb' Mo' and Corey Harris on Sweet Home Chicago recorded in 2003, this remains the best possible primer for a beginner, and a joy to listen to for the long-time enthusiast.

It also sold respectably, and seems to have prompted a wave of more intelligent releases with scholarly liner notes and proper attention paid to the quality of the sound.

It is a particular pleasure to see the back catalogue of the Blue Horizon label becoming available once again, and the latest of its re-releases, Eddie Boyd - The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions, has been daily listening for me in the past week.

During the 60s when Britain was discovering the blues and re-exporting it to the US in the form of the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Cream and many others, many American blues artists who couldn't get arrested in the US came to Britain and Europe to perform and record.

In many cases they ended up settling. Champion Jack Dupree, who had a Blue Horizon set released last year, was one of these. Fellow piano great Eddie Boyd was another.

Actually, Boyd probably could have got arrested in America. In fact, if he hadn't fled to Memphis after sticking a pitchfork into a Mississippi cotton planter named George Crumble in 1936, he probably would have been lynched. In Memphis, fortunately, he had family and could find a crowd to disappear into. He also discovered an interest in music and developed into a solid blues pianist, a compelling singer and a sharp lyricist in the idiom.

In 1941, like many a bluesman before and after him, he made his way north to Chicago to work at his music at night and a steel mill during the day.

Careful to register copyrights for his songs, and unwilling to be taken advantage of, it took him a while to make his mark in a highly exploitative business. He took particular umbrage at being informed by Chess Records owner Leonard Chess that he was useless for any purpose other than supplying songs for Muddy Waters, who happened to be one of Boyd's distant cousins.

He wound up on Chess anyway for what turned out to be his first hit, Five Long Years in 1951, followed in 1953 by two more originals which also became blues standards, Third Degree and 24 Hours.

When he arrived in England in 1965 his career was in the doldrums in his home country, but he was a legend to young musicians such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green. Clapton had recorded Five Long Years with the Yardbirds, and went back to the song, and to Third Degree, a full 30 years later for his From the Cradle blues album.

Clapton also recorded Third Degree with Champion Jack Dupree, but when producer Mike Vernon was putting together a band for Boyd, guitarist Green, bassist John McVie and drummer Aynsley Dunbar from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers got the call. The results of the session, and those of a second day's recording for another album, with Mick Fleetwood on drums, were spectacular.

This disc includes only the music to which Blue Horizon had the rights, which means there are only two tracks recorded with Dunbar - Decca owned the rest - but we have everything from the second session with Fleetwood at the kit, plus a bonus couple of extra tracks.

The CD includes not only some vintage hard-edged vocals from Boyd, but some of the finest blues guitar playing of Green's career, which in its own right makes this re-release a noteworthy event. As a bonus it was produced by Blue Horizon boss, and Mayall's producer at the time, Vernon, who in the mid-60s was probably better at getting an authentic Chicago blues sound than most engineers in Chicago.

Boyd went on to record extensively in Europe - he eventually settled in Finland where he died in 1994 - but the magic of his forceful voice and piano with the exquisite vibrato of Green's guitar, and the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section at their bluesy peak, so far as I'm aware, was never topped.