Seems like I’m always writing these on the way to or from airports. I just got back two hours ago from three weeks on the road in Europe with Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine, my second European tour with Koko this year. It was a tough tour, fourteen shows in sixteen days in twelve different cities in nine different countries. Everywhere we went I heard about a new blues revival in Europe; judging by the size of the crowds it’s true. Lots of old friends shared the stage –Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Charles Brown, Champion Jack Dupree, Otis Rush and Big Time Sarah. I especially enjoyed the Belgium R&B Festival in Peer and the Djurs Festival in Denmark. Both run by blues fans, both in big tents with wild, fun crowds, and both of which treated the artists right. Believe me, after two hours sleep and nine hours travelling, some nice words and a hot meal and a good PA system are very welcome!
It’s funny I’ve been going on the road with artists off and on for over twenty years, and it seems like a couple weeks of slogging guitar cases, mixing sound and staying up half the night somehow revitalize me. I celebrated my 44th birthday with Koko and the band backstage in Hamburg. I expect I’ll celebrate my 88th backstage somewhere, too, just before running out to work the PA. Sure hope so.
Alligator is in the annual summer sales doldrums, which means no new releases this month. Instead we are finally issuing our six-volume LIVING CHICAGO BLUES series on CD and cassette. Through the magic of modern CDs, which can hold a lot more music than LPs, we’ve put all the songs from the six original LPs on four CDs and/or four cassettes, plus the complete liner notes written primarily by Jim O’Neal. The series was issued in two parts back in 1978 and 1980 and has been pretty hard to find in stores for a long time, so this will give many of you a chance to discover these recordings for the first time, while some others can replace their worn LPs with shiny new CDs. Long time readers know how proud I am of this series; it includes some great tracks by Jimmy Johnson, Lonnie Brooks (whose new Alligator album, SATISFACTION GUARANTEED, will be out in mid-August), A.C. Reed, Detroit Junior, Pinetop Perkins, Eddie Shaw and Carey Bell, eighteen artists in all, fours songs each. Each CD and cassette contains well over an hour of music. The real deal.
I’ve been telling you about recording our Professor Longhair album, CRAWFISH FIESTA, back in October of 1979. We wrapped up the whole album in three long, magical days in the studio. Fess and I were already talking about a second album and even discussing a few songs for it, feeling like we were really a team now. I flew back to Chicago tremendously exhilarated and went right to work on the mixes and the cover. It was too late to get the record out before Christmas, so I decided to release it at the end of January, 1980, when the stores started buying again. Michael Smith gave me a wonderful photo of Fess and we designed a very special cover for a very special record.
Then, on morning when the first shipments were due to go out to the distributors, I got a message on my answering machine from Tad Jones, who had been so instrumental in the production of the record. Tad’s voice was full of tears. Fess had died the night before. He had spent the day driving around his neighborhood, calling on old friends. That night he had a heart attack and died instantly. I flew to New Orleans for the funeral along with my engineer, Fred Breitberg, who had recorded and mixed the album.
It was a huge New Orleans funeral, sad and joyful at the same time. Allen Toussaint played a musical tribute to Fess so perfect it made us cry. I’m not a person to read too much meaning into death, but Fess had told me when we left the studio that we had finally made a record that he was really satisfied with. I like to think he died feeling that he had at last truly expressed himself, and knowing his music would live on. I feel he blessed me with a record that is as good as anything Alligator ever released, and I thank him every time I hear it.