Boogie Bill Webb

Flying Fish FF 506

New Orleans guitarist Boogie Bill Webb is an anomaly: born in 1924 near Jackson, Mississippi, Webb moved to New Orleans with his family when he was still a young boy; but his playing is rooted in the venerable cadences of Delta blues. Webb’s mother was a fan of Mississippi bluesman Tommy Johnson, and would bring Johnson to New Orleans to play for the fish fries she held in front of the Webb residence on Melpomene Street.

That was in the 1930s; Johnson was already suffering from the effects of the alcoholism that eventually killed him, but enough greatness remained to make an indelible impression on young Bill Webb. Although Webb first learned the rudiments of blues guitar from a Bogalusa, Louisiana, musician named Roosevelt Holts, he retained his love for Johnson’s Mississippi stylings. In later years, Webb traveled back to Mississippi with Johnson, learning from him and immersing himself even more in the Delta blues idiom. By the time Johnson died, in 1956, Webb’s position as his musical heir was secure.

That role did not put Webb in the musical mainstream of his adopted hometown. He recorded four sides for Imperial in 1952 or ’53 at Cosimo Matassa’s famous studio at Rampart and Dumaine. At a time when most New Orleans R & B musicians were expanding into larger band formats and increasing the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of their music, Webb’s recordings remained solidly in the traditional mold, with relatively simple rhythms and a lineup of guitar, bass, and drums. The major New Orleans bluesman of the time was Guitar Slim, whose searing, overamplified leads and frenetic stage personality made Webb’s subtle emotions and sparse phrasing sound antiquated. Webb sat in occasionally with Fats Domino and gigged with Smiley (“I Hear You Knocking”) Lewis for a while in the 50s. But he seems never to have found his niche in the flamboyant New Orleans scene.

After the Imperial sessions (reissued on Liberty in the late 60s and early 70s), he wasn’t recorded again until 1966, when musicologist David Evans did some field recordings on him that were eventually included in anthologies on several labels. In 1970, Webb joined his old companion and mentor Roosevelt Holts on a session for Arhoolie; but Drinkin’ and Stinkin’ is Webb’s first entire album under his own name. The enterprise was funded by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and other state arts foundations; Nicholas R. Spitzer of the Smithsonian Institution contributed a slick, seven-page pamphlet containing Webb’s biography, extensive notes on Tommy Johnson and the Delta blues, and anecdotes about New Orleans life and culture.

The grandiose presentation may not be the most appropriate to Webb’s music. Beneath its slickness, the listener will discover a delightfully eccentric and eclectic but low-key performer whose charm lies largely in his ability to channel a rough-hewn talent into succinct, witty interpretations of standards and the occasional original. He’s accompanied by bassist Reggie Scanlan and drummer Ben Sandmel; they follow his unpredictable flights with almost unerring precision, and they’re adept at keeping their own improvisational notions within the boundaries set by the leader’s technical facilities.

Webb is as much a songster as he is a bluesman; he incorporates both vintage and recent pop tunes in his repertoire, as well as the odd vaudeville chestnut, a spoken comedy routine, and the inevitable Tommy Johnson tribute. Also included is a nod to the New Orleans R & B scene that proliferated around Webb in the 1940s and ’50s.

The title track (his “opera”) kicks the album off. Chicagoans may be familiar with “Drinkin’ and Stinkin'” from Steve Freund’s version; here Webb incorporates a lope like Jimmy Reed’s (perhaps a legacy of Webb’s admiration for Chicago pianist Johnny Jones), and there are echoes of Webb’s Delta roots in the descending bass patterns. Scanlan and Sandmel immediately establish rapport through their understated comping, although one wishes that someone had taken the time to make sure the instruments were in tune. Webb’s voice is surprisingly clear and sophisticated, somewhat at odds with the back-alley raunch of the lyrics: “You smell like a garbage can late at night / If I tell you whatcha been doin’ it make you want to fight /. . . You don’t ne’er wanna brush your teeth but you always wanna be up in my face / You smell like somethin’ I never smelled before. . . .” It’s an arresting introduction, to say the least, to the musical world of Boogie Bill Webb.

Webb wastes no time in strutting his eclecticism. Although Johnson was his prime mentor, as a young man Webb traveled extensively between New Orleans and Mississippi and as far as Chicago, incorporating influences ranging from Muddy Waters and Otis Spann to Mississippi string-band musicians Son and Stack Hill. “Bill’s Boogie Woogie” is based on Pinetop Smith’s classic, and like most of the material on this record it carries with it the raw-edged exuberance of a club gig. Devotees of the tight, well-rehearsed boogies commonly heard in Chicago might be left cold; but the playfully syncopated dialogue among guitar, bass, and drums toward the end is a delightful example of the riffing that goes on at the folk level of the blues–simple, yet played with infectious joy and unabashed glee at the musical sparks generated.

Although he never really broke into the New Orleans R & B scene, Webb speaks fondly of it. “Cuttin’ Out Baby” is his tribute to that scene’s patriarch, the late pianist Professor Longhair. Webb and his rhythm section don’t attempt a note-for-note re-creation of Longhair’s complex rumba counterrhythms, but within the constraints of a fractionally delayed 4/4 backbeat, they sway over, under, and around the eccentric rhythm, in the spirit, if not to the letter, of the great man’s creations

Webb is at his most effective when he delves into his Delta roots to re- create the music that originally inspired him. Webb learned “Red Cross Store” from Mississippian John Henry “Bubba” Brown. It’s sometimes credited to Leadbelly, although this version seems to have more in common with Walter Roland’s 1933 “Red Cross Blues.” Webb adds a jaunty irreverence to this tale of a proud farmer and his pragmatic wife, who urges him to accept Red Cross charity. His guitar solo is superb, set within a limited harmonic range yet shimmering all the way through with subtle bends and ripples. Webb assumes both characters in the dialogue, and beneath the humor is a hard-eyed acknowledgment of the bitterness dependence breeds among the poor–blues irony at its most pointed.

“Canned Heat,” the Tommy Johnson tribute, is driven along by Sandmel, and Webb affects Johnson’s trademark falsetto moans with an endearing sincerity. On this one his voice descends into a weary rasp, appropriate to the despair underlying the lyrics about alcohol addiction, and he’s got Johnson’s distinctive style down pat–low-key, almost subdued in places, but with a dark undercurrent of emotion.

The influence of the southern black string bands makes itself felt in “You Can’t Tell My Business After Dark” and “Come for a Ride,” novelty ditties with strong vaudeville overtones and characteristically ribald lyrics. “Business” is a bit of a strain for Webb: he’s not remotely a crooner, he sounds uncomfortable adapting his guitar technique to the song’s melodic and rhythmic subtleties, and his musical personality is too pointed for this type of bland, obvious tomfoolery. “Come for a Ride” is more successful. Sandmel’s washboard backing is a pleasant surprise, and Webb’s eccentric timing and chord modifications heighten the sense of spontaneity.

Webb seems more attuned to such contemporary offerings as Lowell Fulson’s “Black Nights.” He and the band support this song with a fuller-bodied backing than they employ elsewhere, playing it faithfully close to Fulson’s original version. Webb in fact manages to submerge his own musical personality almost entirely. This is probably how he approaches modern standards generally in neighborhood clubs, where the patrons prefer renditions they can recognize and dance to easily.

The most offbeat selection is, to my ears, the most memorable: “Paul Jones and Little Virginia Dare” is a punning, riotously obscene “toast” in the great folk tradition. (That tradition is still alive; Chicago comedian Manuel Arrington includes a similar routine, called “Candy Bars,” in his nightclub act.) Based on the brand names of various liquors, “Paul Jones” was taught to Webb by Bubba Brown in Jackson, Mississippi, and Webb narrates it with a hilariously understated solemnity: “. . . he put Five Crowns on her head / Then he pinned Four Roses in her bosom / Then he started to playing with her two little Twin Seals / Then she started smelling just like Mint Spring. . . . He says, “Well let’s do the Old Gristmill’ / So he laid her down on a bed of Three Feathers / And he got right down between her bootlegs / Pulled out his Doctor Dick / Stuck it up in her Private Stock / Then he filled it full of Cream of Kentucky . . .”

Webb is at his best when he evokes the folk heritage. His version of the chestnut “44 Blues” lurks at a medium tempo like an angry street hustler on a date with destiny; the ominous feel, heightened by Sandmel’s funeral-march drum cadences, is justified by the lyrics: “I wore my forty-four so long / I made my shoulder sore/ . . . I’m so mad this morning, I don’t know where’n the world to go . . .”

Inexplicably, the LP finishes off with a weak version of the 1964 King Curtis hit “Soul Serenade.” This is the kind of thing bar bands sometimes do around closing time, when most of the crowd has left, the repertoire is almost depleted, and everyone’s tired and a little drunk. Webb handles the chords and rhythms with admirable aplomb, but it gets repetitive in a hurry: the three-piece lineup isn’t up to the demands of the tune’s soulful lope, and a King Curtis number without a saxophone seems pretty pointless. The song dissolves into aimless chaos, an unfortunately dreary finale to an otherwise enjoyable, quirky, and highly recommended recording.

Some sad news: Boogie Bill Webb passed away in New Orleans a few weeks ago. His last gig was last November at a blues festival in Utrecht, Holland; Chicagoan Steve Freund played bass.