In late January, I had a wonderful time attending the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis. This amazing competition brought together over 100 bands and 60 solo/duo artists from around the world, performing in 19 clubs on and around Beale Street. Plus, there were non-competitive showcase events for youth artists, intended to nurture the youngest generation of blues talent. I judged the band finals, and was truly impressed by the quality of the finalists. Selwyn Birchwood, an exciting young bluesman from Florida, was the band winner; he should have a terrific future in the blues. Little G Weevil, who won the solo/duo competition, was also excellent, with a deep feel for traditional styles. If you’ve never traveled to Memphis for the IBC, you’ve missed out on loads of fun and a glimpse of the breadth of blues talent waiting to reach national stages.
At Alligator, we’re thrilled with the wildly enthusiastic response we’re getting to the Alligator debut by young neo-soul singer/songwriter/guitarist Jesse Dee, On My Mind / In My Heart. Jesse’s already recorded the World Café show for NPR, has been booked on some major blues festivals, and has opened shows for James Hunter. He’s earned radio play on a whole lot of commercial stations and on virtually every blues show in the country. The San Francisco Chronicle called his album “a masterpiece.” Who are we to argue?
In April, we’ll be releasing our fifth album by the extraordinary Florida-based roots rocker JJ Grey and his band Mofro. It’s called This River, and it melds everything that has made JJ Alligator’s most popular artist–gritty vocals, swampy grooves, strutting horns, funky harmonica, and most important, JJ’s memorable, insightful lyrics, telling down-home tales that range from sagas of Deep South love and lust to harrowing stories of desperate people living on the edge, and sometimes falling off.
The record business sure is changing fast. As more and more traditional stores close, fans who want CDs are pretty much forced to shop online. CD sales of some of our older titles have gotten so slow that we’re finding it’s not viable to continue to press the small quantities we can sell. So, some of these albums are becoming available as downloads only. It’s the new reality and we can’t avoid it.
And now, back to Alligator history. Throughout 1986, I was recording an anthology called The New Bluebloods. My goal was to introduce ten of Chicago’s best younger artists, whom I hoped would prove to be the next crop of the city’s best blues men and women. The very first night of recording we cut so many raw, rocking tracks by Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials that I decided to release their debut, Roughhousin’, even before I finished The New Bluebloods. The other promising young artists I chose for the album were The Kinsey Report, Maurice John Vaughn, Melvin Taylor, The Sons of Blues with Billy Branch and J.W. Williams, as well as two artists who are no longer actively performing, guitarists John Watkins and Dion Payton, and two who died way too young, keyboardist Professor Eddie Lusk and big-voiced singer Valerie Wellington.
I believed so much in The Kinsey Report that I signed them for a full album. The Kinsey brothers were the sons of Big Daddy Kinsey, Gary, Indiana’s venerated old school bluesman. With Donald on guitar and vocals, Ralph on drums and Kenneth on bass, and their friend, guitarist Ron Prince, they were creating fresh, cutting-edge blues. They had a slew of original songs, including Corner of the Blanket, their terrific contribution to The New Bluebloods. Donald, in his early 30s, was one of the most exciting bluesmen I had heard in a long time. He had played with both Albert King and Bob Marley, so the whole band had a unique feel, combining blues, funk and reggae. They played with skin-tight intensity and a hard edge that felt like their blue-collar, “Steel City” hometown. We went into Streeterville Studios in late 1987 to cut Edge of the City, a visionary album that marked the emergence of an important new blues talent.
More next time,