I recently returned from Katowice, Poland, where I attended the 35th Rawa Blues Festival. It’s amazing that not only is Poland the home to the largest indoor blues festival in the world, but also that the festival, organized from the beginning by the Polish harp player/violinist/vocalist Irek Dudek, started presenting blues when Poland was still a Communist Bloc country! This year, the festival featured Alligator’s two ‘young guns,’ Selwyn Birchwood and Jarekus Singleton, and was headlined by a senior member of the Alligator family, Elvin Bishop, and his ass-kicking, all-star band.
Here at home, we’re just putting the final touches on Toronzo Cannon’s Alligator debut. After two fine Delmark releases, Toronzo has taken a huge step forward, presenting an album that glories in his Chicago blues roots while pushing the envelope with eleven fresh, new songs, delivered by his soul-infused voice and firebrand guitar. Many of his original tunes don’t quite fit the established mold. Toronzo grew up a few blocks from Theresa’s Lounge, where he heard the masters of the previous generations of Chicago blues. Inspired by them, he’s determined to make his own statement. We haven’t given the album a title yet, but you can look for Toronzo’s new release late this winter.
Meanwhile, we’re getting terrific reviews and radio play for Tommy Castro & The Painkillers’ raw, rocking new album, Method To My Madness, and for Shemekia Copeland’s visionary Outskirts Of Love, with guest appearances by Billy Gibbons, Robert Randolph and Alvin Youngblood Hart. As I write this, Tommy, who just completed the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, is barnstorming across the country, on tour to introduce the songs from the new album. Shemekia, after opening shows for Buddy Guy, is playing a series of dates co-billed with Robert Cray. You can hear samples of both releases on our jukebox at alligator.com.
And now I return to my rambling history of the label. Early in 1988, I was talked into flying to San Jose to experience a Katie Webster performance. A colorful character named Ice Cube Slim, who had a blues radio show in California, had been persistently pitching Katie as a potential Alligator artist. At that time, she was a fairly obscure figure in the blues world. I knew her mostly as the two-fisted piano player on dozens of South Louisiana 45s from the 1950s and 60s on the Excello and Goldband labels. Her classic performances included the Phil Phillips hit Sea Of Love and records by Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo and Guitar Junior (the young Lonnie Brooks).
Katie had disappeared from the music scene before I discovered the blues, but had recently made a comeback, performing in the Bay Area and traveling to Europe as a solo artist. She had cut new albums for a German label and for my friend Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records. I had never seen her live, but her new recordings had too many gospel and old rock ‘n’ roll tunes and not enough blues for my tastes. Still, there were only a handful of piano players leading blues bands, and Katie had great credentials.
Beaming in a sequined gown at a white grand piano covered with inflatable alligators and crawfish, and introduced by the gravel-voiced Ice Cube Slim, Katie made a larger-than-life impression even before she started playing. When her fingers hit the keys, she delivered a supercharged boogie woogie and a triplet-filled Louisiana swamp ballad before embarking on a feminized version of Johnnie Taylor’s Who’s Makin’ Love. She sang in a gospel-tinged voice that announced the years she had spent in church. With her indomitable high spirits, flirtatious smile and powerhouse playing and singing, Katie was captivating.
Every move she made was reinforced by her crack trio of Andrew “Junior Boy” Jones on guitar, Russell Jackson on bass and Tony Coleman on drums, known professionally as The Silent Partners. She did slip in a gospel tune and even a Dire Straits song, but she magically transformed them into a blend of Louisiana blues and Memphis soul. (It was from one of her song introductions that I found out that she had toured with Otis Redding and narrowly missed being with him on his fatal plane crash, so she certainly had the credentials to sing Try A Little Tenderness.) There was a magic about Katie that her records only hinted at, a magic I wanted on Alligator.
More next time,