The members of Congress who proclaimed 2003 "The Year of the Blues" probably didn't know what they were actually honoring. But the extraordinary outpouring of new album releases and reissues has cast a full spotlight on this American musical tradition.
The major player is a 25-CD run based around the highly anticipated Martin Scorsese-produced PBS series "The Blues," scheduled to premiere September 28-October 4. Two of the major record industry conglomerates, Universal Music Enterprises and Sony Music's Columbia Legacy, collaborated on the project.
The single CD overview history is a thumbnail collection for blues neophytes that runs from Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Skip James and Son House through Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Etta James, then relates it all to the rock-era figures Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keb' Mo', Susan Tedeschi and Cassandra Wilson.
The 5 CD box casts its blues net wide enough to appeal to the more committed blues fan who is short of being a full-fledged collector. The first three CDs comprise a great collection ranging from the classic blues of Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Furry Lewis to the New Orleans R&B of Smiley Lewis and Professor Longhair. The fourth volume shows the interaction between the Texas and Chicago blues of the 1950s and '60s and the rock-era interpolations of Hendrix, Joplin, Bob Dylan and Johnny Winter. The final volume collects the contemporary stuff.
The release also contains a dozen "best of" compilations and soundtrack discs from the seven films in the series, including much newly recorded material from the likes of Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Nick Cave, Cassandra Wilson, Los Lobos, Shemekia Copeland, Bonnie Raitt, Beck, the John Spencer Blues Explosion and Public Enemy.
And that's just for starters:
- HighTone Records has released a budget reissue line of excellent blues recordings, "Heritage of the Blues," that is notable for relying on other sources than the obvious big names that stock most of the "Year of the Blues" reissues.
- Louisiana-born Phillip Walker, who played guitar in Clifton Chenier's band during the 1950s, moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and met producer Bruce Bromberg, who recorded his subsequent work for Vault, Joliet, Fantasy, Playboy, Rounder, and HighTone. "The Best of Phillip Walker" is culled from these sessions.
- "Shake It Baby" is a terrific collection of material from Jessie Mae Hemphill, whose coarse, rustic blues anticipates the popularity of the north Mississippi artists on the Fat Possum label.
- "I Wanna Go Home" is a strong collection of tracks by pianist Otis Spann from the 1960s, some with Muddy Waters, some with James Cotton, and three solo pieces.
- Another Muddy Waters alumnus, pianist Pinetop Perkins, is documented in an album of 1990s recordings, while "Mississippi Fred McDowell" collects recordings from the 1960s produced by Pete Welding.
- "Skull & Crossbones Blues," by Johnny Shines, is a terrific Chicago blues album, the bulk of which features the extraordinary band of Shines on guitar, Big Walter Horton on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Lee Jackson on bass and Fred Below on drums.
- MCA Records has reconfigured its vast catalog as "20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection," which collects the best-known material in MCA's vaults by Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elvin Bishop, Etta James, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Buddy Guy. The series also includes the compilations "The Best of Blues Classics" ("The Thrill Is Gone," "I Ain't Superstitious," Got My Mojo Working" etc.); "The Best of Blues Rock Songbook" (Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bobby Bland, Muddy, Hooker etc.); and "The Best of Blues Guitar" (Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, John Mayall with Eric Clapton etc.).
- Delmark Records, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has a vast, eccentric catalog heavily based on Chicago blues and jazz. The wide open, rough and tumble electric guitar jams that make up the great compilation "West Side Chicago Blues" showcase outstanding performances from the likes of Otis Rush, Willie Kent, Magic Sam and Luther Allison. "Blues From Up the Country" collects the delta tradition as exemplified by Big Joe Williams, Robert Nighthawk, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell and Jimmy Rogers among others. "Masters of the Boogie Piano" features such ivory ticklers as Speckled Red, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Little Brother Montgomery and Roosevelt Sykes.
- The Right Stuff/EMI checks in with six CD "best of" packages called The Blues Kingpins series, all culled from EMI's vast blues catalog. Los Angeles-based Imperial Records was the source of the Fats Domino material. Aladdin Records, another L.A. label, yielded most of the Lightnin' Hopkins material. Los Angeles blues labels Modern and RPM contributed the John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and B.B. King recordings, half of the Lightnin' Hopkins sides, and all the Ike Turner but for the rocker "Prancing," cut for Sue Records.
A portion of the profits from the series will be donated to the Blues Foundation in Memphis.