Willie Kent

Big Boy # BB-1937


Little Johnny Christian

Big Boy #BB-1935

A lot of blues fans lament the proliferation of slickly recorded disks on big-name labels. There’s a sweet nostalgia in listening to the old 45s and 78s with their hollow production and distorted vocals; somehow it seems more spontaneous, more real for a blues musician to be recorded that way. If only we had more small-time independent labels and producers in the indigenous blues community, the argument goes, we’d have real blues records.

Veteran Chicago blues DJ Big Bill Collins has taken a step toward filling that perceived need. His label, Big Boy Records (PO Box 53297, Chicago, Illinois 60653), recently released albums by two Chicago blues veterans who appear regularly in black clubs and are slowly gaining wider recognition.

At their best, these records contain good examples of what the local blues scene has to offer, they provide a bit of the unpretentious spontaneity that aficionados hunger after, and the production values recall the storied small labels of the 50s. However, they also remind us that craftsmanship and discipline aren’t necessarily bad. Without them, authenticity can easily spill over into mediocrity.

Bassist Willie Kent is a Chicago veteran. He worked locally in the early 60s with big names like Little Walter, and he’s led various aggregations of his own over the years. Recent overseas tours and festival performances have extended his reputation. I’m What You Need is his first American album under his own name.

Kent is a muscular, soft-spoken man of little pretension; his music reflects his personality–no-nonsense Chicago blues, heavy on the sinew and light on the embellishments. He tends to gather around him musicians who share his meat-and-potatoes approach. The result is a record that at times evokes the gutsy spirit of neighborhood clubs like Mister Tee’s, at Lake and Saint Louis, where Kent and his band, the Gents, hold forth on weekends. The formula works over the short haul or amid the rowdy exuberance of a club date. But when attempts are made to enhance it for the sake of commercial appeal, problems can arise.

Things kick off in fine fashion. “Boogie All Night Long” is a variation on John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie” theme, and “All My Life” is a blues love song delivered at an easy-rolling, sensual tempo. These two cuts, recorded a few years ago as 45s on the local Blue Soul label, feature harmonica player “Mad Dog” Lester Davenport. Drummer Chico Chism drives things along in an energetic shuffle-boogie, and over-the-top guitarists Johnny B. Moore and Jerry Welch add a keening edge to the solid blues foundation laid down by Kent and Chism.

It’s extremely effective. On “Boogie,” Davenport’s harp break is high and clear–sounding almost like a guitar–and the fade-out features Moore firing off a series of Johnny Heartsman-like guitar moans similar to the ones he used later on “Hard Times,” the title track of his debut solo LP on the B.L.U.E.S. R & B label in 1987. Davenport continues to impress on “All My Life.” His tone and improvisational ideas recall Big Walter and enhance the joyful exuberance of the band. Kent sings the lyrics (“You’re my lover, companion, and a friend”) with tender strength. The song is a wonderful sample of the kind of uncluttered, deeply emotional music that characterizes the best Chicago blues.

There’s an immediately discernible difference between these two tracks and the rest of the LP, which was recorded more recently. The band is fine. Although Davenport’s eloquent harp is absent, Kent sounds comfortably at home playing behind guitarists Moore and Willie Davis, along with pianist Barrelhouse Chuck and drummer Tim Taylor. But an unfortunate, barely-in-tune horn track was added to most of the cuts.

Horns might seem appropriate for the title number, a soul ballad that finds Kent straining his voice to approximate the dusky sexiness necessary to put this kind of song across. But the horns are only intrusive. The raw-edged guitar solo, sounding more like music emanating from a west-side alley than a show lounge, accentuates the uncomfortable musical fit. This kind of setting isn’t the best showcase for Willie Kent’s talents–it would better fit someone like Buster Benton. As if this weren’t enough, the piano sounds out of tune as well.

Kent is better served by a standard Chicago shuffle like “Treat My Baby Right.” The song appears twice: in an instrumental version at the end of side one and featuring Kent’s vocals, which carry suggestions of Muddy Waters, on side two. It’s pushed along by Taylor’s drumming and augmented by wide-fingered chords from Barrelhouse Chuck, who plays throughout in the style of his mentor Sunnyland Slim. The guitar solo starts off sparse and tight before leading into some post-B.B. King string bending; it sounds as if Davis has the solo on the instrumental version, while the smoother Moore lends his shimmering leads to the take on side two. The horns also are more appropriate to these two arrangements.

Unfortunately, they’re utterly inappropriate for “That’s All Right,” a countryish Chicago blues standard first recorded by Othum Brown (as “Ora Nelle Blues”) and later made famous by Jimmy Rogers. It’s uncredited here and retitled “You Told Me Baby.” The horns threaten to overwhelm Chuck’s piano entirely and hamper the guitar accompaniment, which is crafted around fine 50s-style Chicago blues patterns. The stylistic tension is maddening–especially when the piano or guitar can be heard clearly and you realize what you’re missing elsewhere–and the song drones on for more than five minutes.

One more shining moment awaits the patient listener. “Mama Told Me,” a driving (and hornless) boogie shuffle, is distinguished by rhythmically unusual guitar triplets. They propel the 4/4 beat in a manner reminiscent of Big Walter’s harmonica accompaniment on Johnny Young’s rollicking mid-60s Arhoolie Records rendition of “Drinking Straight Whiskey.” The guitar solo, I believe, is by Moore; it adds a bit of sophistication, while Barrelhouse Chuck pounds out treble chords with energetic flair. Kent’s vocals at times act almost as another rhythm instrument, firmly in the pocket of the shuffle beat–suggesting the crisp vocal technique of Kent’s fellow west-sider Eddie C. Campbell.

If only “Mama” had been the last cut. The LP finishes with another instrumental version of what’s gone before–a lame jam on the title song. The horns sound as sour and out of tune as ever, and the overall performance is grindingly long (four minutes) and embarrassingly amateurish. It seriously mars a record that, for all its faults, offers an interesting and occasionally exemplary glimpse into a part of the Chicago blues world many fans don’t experience.

If I’m What You Need is a workmanlike blues record made special by moments of inspiration and enthusiasm, then Little Johnny Christian’s Somebody Call My Baby is a well-played set reduced to mediocrity by an almost unbelievable lack of imagination. Although it will serve a newcomer well as an introduction to the kind of music being purveyed by contemporary soul-blues artists on the west and south sides, anyone even remotely familiar with the genre will be dismayed by the cliched nature of almost everything the band plays.

The shame of it is that Christian and his musicians are extremely talented. His voice fuses deep soul passion with a Bobby Bland-like melodiousness, and he’s assembled a band capable of playing music that’s both sophisticated and emotionally satisfying. Especially impressive is tenor saxophonist Michael Jackson, whose imaginative soloing provides some much-needed creativity; Christian’s usual working sax man, Kareem, mostly plays second tenor.

From the opening bass line and band intro on “All Because of Your Love,” originally recorded by Otis Clay in the late 70s, the paucity of new ideas is evident. The riffs are appropriated from any of half a dozen Otis Clay and Tyrone Davis standards–some taken from recorded solos, others from various well-known band arrangements–and the bridge seems directly lifted from, of all things, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Only the sax solo, backed by an effectively churchy organ, redeems the song. The fade-out drags on in an attempt to achieve the kind of gospel finale that’s effective in live performance but seldom comes off on wax.

“I Want to Know” is also borrowed–from a 1960 Sugar Pie DeSanto recording–but again it’s uncredited. (Big Boy is lax in assigning composer credits; one hopes they do better when royalties time comes around.) The song’s soulfulness is set somewhat harshly against a triplet-heavy bass line associated with several well-known Howlin’ Wolf songs, and by the end of the song Christian has segued into a Wolf medley (“Killing Floor,” “Shake for Me”). Again, Jackson provides a welcome combination of imagination and R & B heat. Out in front, Christian’s voice is imbued with magnificent declamatory energy; listeners able to overlook the cliched arrangement will be pleased.

“End of the Rainbow,” the next selection, is a magnificent gem by the late soul singer McKinley Mitchell. Everything finally kicks in: the horns warble in a deep gospel moan and Christian’s vocals mine the depths of despair, given added urgency by the minor key riffing behind him. This is one of Christian’s showstoppers: when he sings it at Michelle’s Lounge on West Madison, even the bartenders and waitresses join in on the chorus with the passion and skill of a well-rehearsed gospel choir. He turns in a vintage performance here, approaching the spellbinding power of his live renditions–easily the album’s high point.

A dud follows a gem: another endless (five minutes plus) noodling-around jam on a previous cut, “All Because of Your Love.” There’s nothing happening that we haven’t heard earlier, and very little we haven’t heard elsewhere. This might make pleasant background music for conversation and dancing, but it doesn’t belong on a record.

Unfortunately, most of the second side continues in the same vein: smoothly played and passionately sung, but little more than a well-worn-riffs quiz for R & B fans. “Turn in Point” (Tyrone Davis’s “Turning Point,” mysteriously misspelled) is sung in pleasantly gritty fashion by Christian, but there’s little anyone can add to this overdone song. Predictably, Jackson comes in with some delightful yakkety-yak sax, spurting out fractured phrases over Kareem’s sustained drone notes. Toward the end Christian inserts a few verses from another Davis hit, “Give It Up (Turn It Loose)” and then the song ends, weirdly, in mid-bar.

The title cut, vastly overlong at seven minutes, is a pastiche of familiar blues lyrics by artists ranging from Saint Louis Jimmy (“Going Down Slow”) and Big Bill Broonzy (“Key to the Highway”) to Ray Brooks (“Walk Out Like a Lady”). Jackson’s tenor solo features a few Sonny Stitt-like runs, although he never loses the song’s blues-gospel flavor. The fade-out is based on yet another cliche, probably best known as the riff from Ray Charles’s “Busted.”

Better (although also unacknowledged) is “All of Your Love,” a cover of Magic Sam’s 1957 classic. One might not expect Christian’s smooth soulfulness to do justice to Magic Sam’s harsh intensity, but it comes off remarkably well. The song is goosed with a charging bass line, and Christian screams it out with surprising blues fire, approximating Sam’s famous west-side shout, right down to the distortion in the vocal mix.

Big Boy Records must have a pathological fear of finishing on a satisfying note. The final cut is an instrumental version of something we’ve already heard (the absurdly titled “Turn in Point”), again providing nothing of originality or interest.

These guys can play, and if you don’t mind cliches or if you’re not familiar with this genre, you’ll derive much satisfaction from this disk. The rest of us, however, must wait until Christian and his band find a producer and arranger with the imagination to bring out the best they have.