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(Above: Blues legends Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton help Big Head Todd and the Monsters visit the “Killing Floor.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Rock and roll tributes to the blues are hardly a novel concept, but the glossy, contemporary rock of Big Head Todd and the Monsters makes them an unexpected outfit to try such a feat.

Saturday’s concert at the Uptown was billed as “Back at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts.” The four-piece, Colorado rock band aimed to celebrate Johnson in the months leading up to his 100th birthday in May, but this wasn’t quite the case. Johnson figured prominently in the set, but there was also a heavy dose of Chicago blues. The night was more like an exposition of the genre’s most overt influences on rock. Put another way, the first set opened with Todd Park Mohr alone onstage playing the dobro and ended less than an hour later with dueling drum solos.

Taking the stage in a dark suit and black fedora, frontman Mohr quickly put any expectations for the Monsters’ back catalog to bed, telling the one-third capacity crowd the only thing they’d be hearing was “straight, natural blues.” He was right for the most part, but an audience clamoring for “Bittersweet” – one of the band’s biggest tunes – needn’t have worried. The songs in the last third of the set sounded like typical Big Head Todd material outfitted with familiar blues lyrics.

Mohr opened with three stellar, solo acoustic numbers before being joined by Missouri native Lightnin’ Malcolm and Monsters keyboardist Jeremy Lawton. That trio, along with bass player Rob Squires who entered later, formed the core band for the night, present on nearly every number. They were augmented by drummer Cedric Burnside, grandson of the Fat Possum bluesman R.L. Burnside and Malcolm’s longtime touring partner, and Monsters drummer Brian Nevin.

The real blues cred, however, came from 79-year-old guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and 75-year-old harp man James Cotton. Sumlin’s playing can be heard on most of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic material and Cotton played on many great Muddy Waters records. Half a century later, both men were in just as fine of form today as they were in their Chess Records heyday. Sumlin’s soling was nimble and his vocal turn on “Sittin’ On Top of the World” was strong. Cotton made his harmonica moan and wail like a woman in pleasure and had so much fun during one solo that he started laughing when it was done.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters are no strangers to working with blues legends. In 1997 they worked with John Lee Hooker on a cover of his “Boom Boom” that reached the Top 40. Opinions of that track will likely frame one’s appreciation for the evening: The band either misappropriated a hero to dumb down a song or paid honest homage using their familiar idiom.

The best moments were the spare opening numbers, particularly Lightnin’ Malcolm’s duets with Cotton on “Walkin’ Blues” and “Future Blues.” Mohr really pushed himself at the mic all night and did a great job approximating the Wolf’s moans and rasp on the Chicago numbers. Cotton or Sumlin were onstage for about half of the two-hour set’s 22 songs. Their contributions were always a treat.

After the first, mostly acoustic set, the band took a 20 minute break. They returned for another hour of electric music that blurred the lines between Chicago blues, traditional bar band fare and the typical Big Head sound. Not everything worked – covers of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and a slick arrangement that removed any sense of doom from “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” were questionable. But there was no doubt everyone onstage was having fun.

Setlist: Love in Vain; Stones In My Passway; Dry Spell; Kind-Hearted Woman Blues; If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day; Walkin’ Blues; Future Blues; Viola Lee Blues; When You Got A Good Friend; Travelling Riverside Blues. Intermission. Ramblin’ On My Mind; Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil); Wang Dang Doodle; Sittin’ On Top of the World; Killing Floor; I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love; Jesus Just Left Chicago; Come On In My Kitchen; Last Fair Deal Gone Down. Encore: Cross Road Blues; I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom > Sweet Home Chicago.

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(Above: B.B. King and Buddy Guy jam on “Rock Me Baby” with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan at a recent Crossroads Festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few in the sold-out crowd that greeted B.B. King, the 84-year-old King of the Blues, at the Midland theater on Friday night expected the energy and vitality of King’s essential “Live at the Regal” album, released 45 years ago. It is also likely few expected the extensive banter that filled King’s 90 minutes onstage.

King’s set opened with a 10-minute vamp that allowed everyone in his eight-piece backing band the chance to solo. Once King took the stage, he proved he still had the chops and voice fans love. His excellent reading of the blues warhorse “Key to the Highway” melded nicely into King’s own “Blues Man.”

Another classic, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” was driven by a military cadence on the snare drum. When coupled with King’s four-piece horn arrangement, the song recalled a New Orleans funeral march. The band followed that number with a song King recorded with U2 back in the ‘80s. In their most upbeat performance of the night, the King and his band lit into “When Love Comes To Town” with surprising energy. Sadly, it was not to last.

From there King’s set was as much a monologue as it was a musical dialogue. Here are some of his best one-liners:
•    “You can look at me and tell I ain’t no Michael Phelps. I don’t smoke.”
•    After hitting a bum note on Lucille, his guitar: “I know I shouldn’t have let her go to the liquor store.”
•    After the audience response didn’t meet expectations: “I think you’re teasing me. You sound like Tiger Woods.”

As King’s chitchat neared the 20-minute mark, fans started to grow restless. Some shouted song requests; others just yelled “play something.” King apologized for not being able to play one of the requests, then continued rambling about Viagra and instructing men how to set the mood by playing Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind.”

After a bizarre musical riff on ED medications, King finally gave the crowd another song in the form of “Rock Me Baby.” The aborted performance led into King’s signature number, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Even then, King littered the song with asides and shout-outs to the sound men and lighting crew. When the throng realized they weren’t going to get another full performance, they started leaving en masse.

No one can fault King for growing old. He’s lived a rich life and brought joy to millions of people around the globe. Perhaps King feels he needs to stay onstage for so long to justify his high ticket price. If this is the case, he may be better off knocking a couple bucks off the ticket and cutting half of his horn section. (The quartet was only onstage half the time anyway.) While King’s onstage generosity is commendable, fans might be more appreciative of a shorter set loaded with music than the current drawn-out arrangement.

It would be unfair to label Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy the evening’s “opening act.” Guy just happened to go onstage first.

Listening to Guy is like hearing the history of electric blues on shuffle. Backed by a tight four-piece band, the 73-year-old guitarist tore through a 65-minute tribute to his heroes and contemporaries.

Guy teased out an abstract solo over the familiar opening chords of “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a setting that was more Thelonious Monk than Muddy Waters, and took particular delight in delivering the song’s more racy lyrics. Guy’s tribute to his late friend and collaborator Junior Wells on “Hoodoo Man” was another high point.

The night’s signature moment started with Guy playing so quietly one could hear his amp buzzing over the P.A. As “Drowning on Dry Land” progressed, Guy eased his way off-stage and into the crowd. He nailed a long solo while walking nearly two-thirds of the way up the floor, and finished it plopped down in a surprised fan’s seat.

Before leaving the stage, Guy paid tribute to his friend and inspiration, B.B. King. Growing up in Louisiana, Guy said, there were no music shops, just stores that happened to have instruments in one corner. Before King’s records came out, inventory was priced to move. But after “Three O’Clock Blues,” guitars were suddenly harder to come by.

B.B. King setlist: I Need You So, Let the Good Times Roll, Key to the Highway>Blues Man, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, When Love Comes To Town, You Are My Sunshine, “ED Medication Blues,” Rock Me Baby, The Thrill Is Gone.

Buddy Guy setlist: Nobody Understands Me But My Guitar, Muddy Waters medley: Hoochie Coochie Man/She’s 19 Years Old/Love Her With A Feeling, Hoodoo Man, Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In, Drowning On Dry Land, Close to You, Boom Boom, Strange Brew, Voodoo Chile, Sunshine of Your Love.

Keep reading:

Review: Buddy Guy (2008)

Review: Buddy and Bettye at Roots N Blues N BBQ Fest 2008

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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Above: Buddy Guy preaches the blues via Cream, Hooker and Hendrix.

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Buddy Guy isn’t mentioned in the film “Cadillac Records” but he made a strong case for his inclusion among the Chess label’s pantheon of greats Friday night at the Uptown Theater.

After a brief introduction by his four-piece band, Guy walked onto the stage and straight into a guitar solo. When he finally tired of pulling notes from his cream-colored Stratocaster, Guy walked to the mic and began to sing. Rattling off the names of his mentors and influences – Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon – he passionately cried “they’re the ones who made the blues, tell me who’s going to fill those shoes?” It was a reverent, but rhetorical question.

Guy has no trouble whipping a crowd into a frenzy, but he can silence them just as easily by placing a finger to his lips. He stayed in a quiet mode for most of the evening, dripping a spare, creeping version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The classic Waters number was propelled by Guy’s expressive singing and the familiar bass line while a sprinkling of piano and smattering of guitar solos were drizzled over the top. That number worked its way into two more Waters’ tunes, “Love Her With A Feeling” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”

While his playing was still fiery, Guy was content to smolder for an evening. With the drums gently clicking like metronome, band played so subtly they were easily overwhelmed by conversation when the audience grew restless. The steady flow of bodies to the beer stands said the crowd wasn’t expecting so much restraint.

Likewise, Guy probably wasn’t expecting such an empty house. The Uptown’s balcony was closed off and while the floor was basically full, there were still plenty of vacant seats.

Opening act Tom Hambridge, who also produced Guy’s latest album, hopped onstage to lend vocal support to “Skin Deep.” Guy’s journey as the child of Louisiana sharecroppers to witnessing his fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama claim the presidency gives his song for racial equality extra poignancy. The soul ballad ended with the audience singing along. Bolstered by a Hammond organ, the song wasn’t quite gospel, but it felt a lot like church.

A tribute to Albert King opened with one of the mellowest readings of “I’m Going Down” of all time. The song heated up, though, when Guy jumped offstage and slowly made his way through the assembly. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, Guy devastated “Drowning On Dry Land.” Walking into the foyer, Guy unleashed the most blistering solo of the night with few witnesses around. With his guitarist and bass player swaying to a synchronized two-step on stage, Guy sauntered back into the theater and plopped down in one of its seats without missing a note. Guy’s six-string field trip ended with a passionate performance of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”

The second half of the show was essentially a mega medley of Guy’s blues heroes. Rotating from John Lee Hooker to Little Walter to Cream to a dialed-down cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” Guy switched songs so often it was almost like their was a penalty for playing a number all the way through. He found a wah wah peddle and the volume switch for “Voodoo Child” and channeled James Brown for a stellar snippet of “I Go Crazy.” After nearly 90 minutes onstage, Guy closed with a bit of “Kansas City.”

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etta
Above: No, it’s not Beyonce. The wonderful Etta James during her Chess period.

By Joel Francis

As the 1960s dawned on Chess Records, label founders Leonard and Phil were at the peak of their powers. Thanks to the proselytizing of the British Invasion bands, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and other blues artists were performing for the largest crowds of their careers. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had helped formed rock and roll, and the label had branched into more genres, including R&B, comedy, jazz and gospel.

But Leonard and Phil were still looking for new ways to stay on top of the trends and build their roster. One of their biggest signings of the decade was an immediate success. The other took more than three decades to reach his commercial potential, but stands today as the greatest living link to Chess and Chicago blues.

Etta James was born in Los Angeles to an unwed, 14-year-old mother. She was discovered at age 14 by bandleader Johnny Otis, and recorded with him for Modern Records in the late 1950s. She signed to Chess in 1960 and converted Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” into an R&B hit. Her breakthrough came the following year with “At Last.” The gorgeous soul ballad was a bit of a departure for the label – guitars and harmonicas were replaced by a lush string orchestra. From the gritty soul of “In the Basement” and “Tell Mama” to the heartache of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” James’ versatile voice found success for the rest of the decade.

Buddy Guy showed up in Chicago in 1957 and quickly fell under the wing of Muddy Waters. Although he was known for his anarchic guitar playing onstage, the Chess brothers reigned him in on record. Primarily a session guitarist, solo singles like “The First Time I Met the Blues” barely hinted at the flamboyant style that influenced Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Guy didn’t find true success until his 1991 comeback album “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” on the Silvertone label.

With the exception of Berry, who briefly recorded for Mercury in the mid-’60s before returning to Chess, and Dixon, who took a short-lived job at Vee-Jay, all of Chess’ major artists stayed with the label until its sale. By the end of the ’60s, Leonard and Phil had been looking for a way to get out of the record business and into television. When GRT made an offer of $6.5 million for all of the label’s properties, they accepted. Less than a year after selling their label, Leonard Chess was dead. Just 52 years old, the elder brother had died of a heart attack in his car less than two blocks from the Chess headquarters. He had been on his way to a meeting at WVON.

A little over twenty years after opening the Mocambo Lounge, Leonard and Phil Chess’ dream of striking it rich had come true several times over. With Leonard no longer alive, it was up to Phil and Marshall, Leonard’s son, to appease the worries from their biggest stars that the brothers had made unreasonable profits off their artists.

While many of the Chess stars were also very well off, other artists showed less financial responsibility and had very little to show for their success. In the 1970s, several Chess artists, including Waters, Wolf and Dixon sued for back royalty payments. All the lawsuits were settled confidentially out of court; the issue is still debated today. Bo Diddley was especially bitter about his treatment, telling Rolling Stone in the 1987, “My records are sold all over the world and I ain’t got a f—ing dime.” While we’ll likely never know the truth, cases of labels withholding royalties from artists are still common today. Leonard and Phil probably felt they took good care of their artists, but they also made sure to take great care of themselves at the same time.

Nearly 40 years after its sale, the legacy of Chess Records continues to burn bright. From bloozy biker bars and hole-in-the-wall BBQ juke joints to stadium tours by the Rolling Stones and samples used by rappers Nas and Chuck D, there are few corners of the English-speaking world where the impact of Chess’ artists isn’t felt. In 1977 NASA gave the label celestial influence when they placed a copy Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” inside the Voyager space probe.

In 1964 the Rolling Stones, hot on their first tour of America, made a pilgrimage to the Chess building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. Decades later, Dixon’s widow purchased the property, which serves as a Chess museum and headquarters for Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. Each year, tourists and musicians alike visit the building to pay homage to the Chess masters and stand in the space where so many incredible songs were captured.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and Chicago Blues
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll

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howlin-wolf

Above: The Wolf howls.

By Joel Francis

Leonard Chess’ motivation for buying the property on South Cottage Grove in Chicago that would become the Macomba Lounge was clear: he thought it would make money.

When his brother Phil got out of the Army in 1946, he went straight to work with his brother at the club. It was located in a rough black neighborhood known for prostitution and drugs, but within four years it was a prime haunt for both musicians and patrons.

The Macomba Lounge burnt to the ground in 1950, but the Chess brothers’ back-up plan was well underway. Shortly after buying the Macomba, the brothers established Aristocrat Records as a way to record the musicians who played the lounge. Instead of having the bands show up on Cottage Grove to play, they would show up at the Aristocrat offices several blocks down the street and record.

It was a far cry from the world the Polish immigrants born Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz left. Their father was a shoemaker and the family of five lived in one large cement-floored room with no electricity, running water or heat. In the winter, the family brought their cow inside for warmth.

The timing for Aristocrat Records’ foray into “race” music couldn’t have been better. Five million African-Americans fled north to escape Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan in the second Great Migration. One of the emigrants was a Mississippi sharecropper who had been recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

McKinely Morganfield was a hot commodity at the juke joints and house parties around Stovall plantation, but he thirsted for bigger success and escape from the cotton fields. In 1943, he moved to Chicago, but his acoustic guitar and “country” style didn’t play as well. After a couple years driving trucks during the day and playing clubs by night, he was given an electric guitar. Bolstered by his new, amplified instrument, Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, married his native Delta blues style with the hard, electric soul of his new hometown.

In 1948, Waters cut two songs for Aristocrat that launched his career and established the Chess brothers as players in the music business. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” convinced Leonard and Phil the blues were the way to go, and they gradually started letting Waters bring his sidemen and other musicians in to cut sides. By the time the name of the label was changed to Chess Records in 1950, the label’s stable included harmonica king Little Walter, guitarists Robert Nighthawk and Jimmy Rodgers and bass maestro Willie Dixon.

A former boxer, Dixon was another Mississippi transplant and the architect of not only the Chess sound, but the post-World War II blues scene that continues to thrive today. Dixon was the Chess brothers’ right-hand man. While the brothers hovered around the blues scene they could only get so close. Dixon was in the scene, connected to all the major players and all the hot trends. Dixon had an ear to the track, but he forged his own path as well, writing the lion’s share of the genre’s biggest numbers: “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “My Babe,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Spoonful.” Rare was the Chess release that didn’t feature Dixon’s bass playing, songwriting or production skills – most had all three. When the blues caught on in England in the 1960s, Dixon arranged several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe that featured many of the day’s biggest stars (many of whom, coincidentally, also recorded for Chess). Dixon once said “I am the blues.” He was not bragging.

While Phil was in Chicago recording Dixon’s songs, Leonard was on the road promoting, meeting with distributors, disc jockeys and learning the business. On one trip to Memphis, Leonard made a contact who put him in touch with Sam Phillips. Phillips hadn’t established Sun Studios yet, but his legendary ear was already glued to the ground. Phillips sent Chess his recording of Ike Turner’s song “Rocket 88” recorded by Turner with singer Jackie Brenston and some songs by Chester Burnett.

The 300-pound Burnett was better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf. Yet another Mississippi escapee, Wolf moved to Memphis after his military discharge following World War II and had a radio show in West Memphis, Ark. His company on the airways included Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. Like King, Wolf cut some albums for the Bihari brothers and Modern Records, but after Phillips slipped Chess a copy of “How Many More Years” a bidding war erupted for Wolf’s music. Chess won the battle and Wolf moved to Chicago to cut records with Dixon and compete with Waters on the legendary Maxwell Street blues scene.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

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