I’m writing this from the studio while I work with the engineer on the mixes for Rattleshake ,the new CD from Chicago’s happiest, rawest blues band, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials. The sessions were loads of fun, like they always are with Ed. We recorded for 2½ days, cutting everything live (only overdubbing when we had to fix a mistake), trying to nail each song in just a couple of takes, and sometimes doing it in just one. Ed ripped into his solos with some of the toughest guitar sounds he’s ever gotten in the studio, and the Blues Imperials were providing some of their best grooves ever. Plus, Ed delivered the strongest vocals of his recording career. I love recording this way, just going for it, like we used to do in the days before musicians and producers became very careful about perfecting their performances. Because we were recording digitally, we didn’t have to worry about the cost of tape, letting us keep all the takes of a song and deciding later which one was the best. Sitting in with the Blues Imperials on some cuts was Johnny Iguana, who played piano and organ with Junior Wells, among many others. The piano in the mix reminded me of some of my favorite Elmore James’ tracks. Ed’s musical reference point was Hawk Squat, the classic Delmark album by his uncle, J.B. Hutto, with Sunnyland Slim on keys. As with Ed’s other albums, we recorded a wealth of songs, 22 in all. Now it’s my job to choose the strongest performances from this plethora of riches. Besides 16 originals written by Ed and his wife Pam, we cut two by his half brother and bassist, James “Pookie” Young, and a few well-chosen covers from uncle J.B, Elmore James, (surprise) Billy Joe Shaver and a Blues-Imperialized Motown obscurity.
We’ll be releasing Ed’s new album at the end of June, along with our fourth acoustic gem from the incomparable guitar/harmonica duo, Cephas & Wiggins, entitled Shoulder To Shoulder. Like with their previous Alligator albums, John and Phil prove once again that they are the masters of the melodic Piedmont style, weaving John’s rich baritone voice and incisive finger picking with Phil’s propulsive, roller coaster harp. Joining them on seven songs is Ann Rabson of Saffire on piano. John composed six new originals for the album, and brought the Cephas & Wiggins touch to classics from Skip James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Boy Fuller and Sleepy John Estes. If you’re a country blues fan, this will simply be an essential purchase.
Plus, Coco Montoya, Guitar Shorty, The Holmes Brothers and Koko Taylor(!) are all in the studio, so you can look for some exciting new releases from us during the coming months.
I’ve been telling you about the making of Showdown!, the epic studio meeting of Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray. On the last of our four days, we concentrated on recording the book ends of the album, the songs featuring all three of them soloing. My co-producer Dick Shurman had suggested Robert’s arrangement of T-BoneShuffle, as a tribute to the most important electric blues guitarist ever, T-Bone Walker. All three guitarists were shuffle masters, and each pulled out his best licks, trying to outshine the other two. Dick also came up with Ray Charles’ Blackjack, a perfect choice considering how much Albert loved his cards and dice. The lyrics gave Albert an opportunity to direct the song, encouraging each of his guitarists to show his best musical “hand.” Together, these jams epitomized the spirit of Showdown!,loving competition between three men who truly inspired each other.
Leaving the studio, we all knew that this album was destined to be a classic. It turned out to be the best seller ever on Alligator, and an essential addition to any modern blues collection. I can’t tell you how proud I was when Albert, Johnny and Robert accepted the Grammy© award for Best Blues Album of 1985.
More next time,