Turn Up That Noise
By David D. Duncan
FEBRUARY 28, 2000:
Sunnyland Slim, Smile On My Face
When the blues moved a big part of its baggage to Chicago from the Delta after World War II, there was never really any doubt that it was there to stay. First-generation bluesmen like Muddy Waters and the mighty Howlin' Wolf made the Windy City their personal and professional home, so Chicago became known as the second home of the blues.
The passage of time took with it the original Chicago bluesmen and blueswomen. But thankfully, there was a second generation on hand who learned the blues directly from the masters. Today, even these acolytes are in danger of extinction, though there are still a handful around to play the blues as they were meant to be heard but with Chicago style.
Under the direction of owner/founder Bob Koester, Delmark Records has preserved most of the important Chicago blues and jazz players since 1953. In addition to promoting this important heritage, Koester and Delmark Records also provided a training ground for the current crop of blues preservationists and independent blues record label owners (Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, Michael Frank of Earwig Records, Jim O'Neal of Living Blues Magazine, and the late Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish Records, to name just a few).
So it comes as no surprise that Delmark Records continues this standard of excellence even today, and the three releases at hand serve to confirm a sterling reputation. Only one of the three is no longer around to contribute to the Chicago blues scene, as Sunnyland Slim passed away in 1995.
In addition to being one of the key Chicago blues figures, pianist/vocalist Sunnyland Slim recorded for almost five decades without ever having a hit. But his lack of commercial success doesn't dim his contributions one bit because the blues field is one of the few entertainment areas where success is measured in survival and not in being the "next big thing." Sunnyland Slim kept playing the blues live around small Chicago clubs even when he was an octogenarian, keeping the faith until his death.
"Smile On My Face" was recorded over four nights in 1977 and, until now, was only available as an English import on the Red Lightnin' label under a different title. It certainly deserves its current reissue status, as the recording finds Sunnyland Slim and his rowdy musical cohorts in fine fettle making rock-bottom blues with a sly grin.
With solid support from longtime friends like guitarists Lacy Gibson and Lee Jackson, Sunnyland Slim dishes out a tasty sampling of classics like "Everytime I Get To Drinking," "I Had It Hard," and "Depression Blues." Not too shabby for a man on the eve of his 70th birthday, and an excellent introduction to the fascinating blues world of Sunnyland Slim.
The other two Delmark releases feature contemporary artists who have also paid their dues, but are still around. "Singin' With the Sun" marks the first CD from Little Arthur Duncan (no relation), who sounds powerful at age 65.
Duncan's rough-edged voice and primitive harmonica stylings hark back to an age before the blues got too damn slick for its own good. Nine out the 14 songs on Singin' With the Sun are solid Duncan originals, with respectful nods to Jimmy Reed ("Pretty Thing" and "Tribute to Jimmy Reed") and Howlin' Wolf ("No Place To Go"). Let's hope the folks at Delmark get Little Arthur Duncan back into the studio soon.
Lurrie Bell is one of those original Chicago wildmen whose behavior can never be predicted, but once he picks up a guitar all is forgiven as he turns and twists the strings to produce sounds of someone with a hellhound on his trail.
"Blues Had a Baby" is Bell's fourth album for Delmark, and although it doesn't quite capture the magic of his last one (the edgy Kiss of Sweet Blues), it's still essential listening. Of particular interest are four impromptu studio tracks that find Bell putting his own particular stamp on such hoary classics as "If I Had a Hammer" and, believe it or not, "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
As the blues enters the 21st century, it may be more popular than ever, but it's rapidly losing touch with its roots in the Delta. Middle-class white boys are now the heralded future of blues, and while they may be fine technicians, they haven't lived life hard enough and don't have the heritage behind them to convincingly sing the blues. Catch these three releases on Delmark to be reminded why the blues are important, and why it's important to keep the true blues alive in America.
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