Last month I had the pleasure of being a judge at the band finals of the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis. This event just gets bigger and better every year. This year, 157 bands and solo/duo acts from 34 states and eight countries showcased. The band winners were The Sean Carney Band from Columbus, Ohio (really nice to see such a tasteful, melodic guitarist get first place), The Homemade Jamz Band from Tupelo, MS (ages 14, 12 and 8 and they were really playing blues well, and even more surprising, the vocals were very, very good; you’ll hear more about these kids who don’t sound like kids) and Mighty Lester, a fine swing/jump/soul band from North Carolina with an excellent vocalist. All of them deserved their awards, and deserve a wider audience. One of the clubs where the semi-finals are presented featured all bands fronted by artists under the age of 21, and some of them were pretty terrific. Kudos to the Blues Foundation for creating a showcase for developing talent. I sure hope some of these artists are booked on the summer festivals.
In my last letter, I didn’t mention one brand new Alligator release—Country Ghetto by JJ Grey & Mofro. That’s because it’s not truly a blues record, but it sure speaks to me as a blues fan. JJ likes to call his music ‘front porch soul.’ He comes from the swamplands of northern Florida, and a lot of his songs (they’re all originals) are drawn from his life experiences in the Southern backwoods. They might bring Tony Joe White to mind, but there’s also a strong influence of Memphis soul, and JJ’s raw voice can remind me of Clarence Carter’s or even Otis Redding’s. The rhythms are tough, funky and rocking, and the passion in the music feels like the blues to me. It was that passion that made me pursue the band for Alligator. Plus, the first person to turn me on to this wonderful band was Sam Veal, who featured them at his Springing The Blues Festival in Jacksonville, where thousands of blues fans were as excited by their music as I was. I invite you to visit the Alligator juke box at www.alligator.com and take a listen. I bet you’ll dig JJ’s music just like I do. It’s soulful stuff.
It’s time to tell you about the making of guitar genius Roy Buchanan’s second Alligator album, Dancing On The Edge, back in 1986. My co-producer Dick Shurman and I wanted to avoid following too closely the model of Roy’s previous release, When A Guitar Plays The Blues. Roy, as usual, had come to the project with a heap of instrumentals but not much in the way of vocal songs. Roy had been playing the Peter Gunn TV theme song for years, so that started the song list. From Roy’s instrumental ideas, we picked four, ranging from a pyrotechnic rocker to a gentle ballad dedicated to his baby grandson. As Roy was a reluctant vocalist, we had invited two great soul vocalists, Otis Clay and Gloria Hardiman, to guest on the previous album. This time, we wanted a different style of guest singer, and Dick suggested Delbert McClinton, the great Texas roadhouse vocalist. Luckily, Delbert agreed. For Delbert, we decided on a guitar-heavy version of the classic You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover. And Dick suggested The Chokin’ Kind, an R&B classic that had been a hit for Joe Simon. It was Delbert who chose Aretha Franklin’s Baby, Baby, Baby, a gorgeous soul ballad that I had never heard.
We called on the fiery rhythm section from the first album, with Chess studio veteran Morris Jennings on drums and Larry Exum on bass. This time, we recruited Donald Kinsey of The Kinsey Report on rhythm guitar and Lonnie Mack’s pal Stan Szelest on keyboards. We assembled at our “home,” Streeterville Studios in Chicago. We didn’t have a lot of time with Delbert, and we knew his voice was going to be a key part of the identity of this album. Roy, though known as a front man, loved accompanying singers, especially on songs with a well-defined vocal melody that he could use as a creative springboard to structure his brilliant, genre-stretching guitar solos. The chemistry between Roy’s guitar creativity and Delbert’s country soul voice was perfection.
Til next time,