Welcome to a new year, and one that I hope will be better for the blues than 2006. In the last few months, we’ve lost so many of our most beloved blues men and women of earlier generations. A host of our living connections to this marvelous musical tradition are now only memories. Like many of us, I feel blessed to have seen and heard these great artists. I never stop being a fan, and it amazes me that I’ve had a chance to be in the presence of essential creators and interpreters like Robert Lockwood, Ruth Brown, Henry Townsend, Snooky Pryor, Homesick James and so many more.
I’m thrilled to be able to tell you that one of the greatest living links to the Chicago blues’ golden era, Koko Taylor, is preparing her first new album in seven years. As you may know, since that time, Koko faced dire health crises. Three years ago she was in intensive care, and the doctors gave her little hope of survival. Amazingly, she virtually willed herself back to life, and since her recovery has been performing some wonderful concerts. After I saw her triumphant 2005 performance at the Chicago Blues Festival, I joyfully realized that she’d be able to record again. Koko and I decided that it was time for her to cut a real ‘return to her roots’ album of 1950s-style Chicago blues. Koko dedicated herself to writing fresh originals in the old style, and she produced five terrific new ones. For other songs, we turned to some of her inspirations and fondly remembered friends–Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Willie Dixon and Lefty Dizz. Koko and I put together a group of all-star musicians with a deep understanding of the true classic Windy City sound. For one session, we brought together Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin on guitar and Billy Branch on harmonica (who together channeled Muddy, Pat Hare, Little Walter and James Cotton) with a core rhythm section of Willie “The Touch” Hayes on drums, John Kattke on piano and either Kenny Hampton on electric bass or Jimmy Sutton on upright. Weaving together the music was the extraordinary guitarist/arranger Criss Johnson. If you’ve heard Criss on Koko’s other albums (he’s been on all of them since 1981), you probably think of him as a modern funk/rock guitarist with fantastic, high-speed blues/rock chops, but a musical sensibility much more of today than of the ‘50s. As it turns out, Criss’ stepfather was a down home bluesman who gave him an instinctive grasp of the early electric styles of players like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Willie Johnson. Following Koko’s lead (she sang him the rhythm figures she heard in her head), Criss arranged the rhythm guitar and bass parts that the band locked into. With these great players to support her, Koko reached deep inside herself for the roaring power and raw attack that are her trademark. She delivered far beyond my expectations. We’re tentatively calling the album Old School. You can look for it in April. I’m working on the new Koko mixes even as I write this, and I feel confident that this new album will yet again prove her, at the age of 78, to still be Chicago’s and the world’s reigning Queen Of The Blues.
Looking back (as I try to do in each of these letters), it’s hard to tell you much more about the recording of James Cotton’s 1986 Live From Chicago—Mr. Superharp Himself!! than I’ve already mentioned in previous letters. As anyone who saw Cotton in the 1980s knows, he and his funky band operated at a super-intense rock energy level, but he always had the ability to bring it way down for the real deal slow blues. Cotton is one of the true harmonica masters, and this is one of his few live recordings, which makes it an essential recording in the career of an essential bluesman. Of course, you can sample tracks on our jukebox at www.alligator.com.
As I was completing this letter, I heard about the accidental death of a great champion of New Orleans music, Tad Jones. Always behind the scenes, Tad was hugely instrumental in promoting the music of his beloved Crescent City. Without him our wonderful Professor Longhair album, Crawfish Fiesta, might never have been made. Tad never wanted the spotlight for himself, only for the music he loved. A good man with a gentle soul.
Til next time,