Black Diamond Express: Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 11 | Album Review

Black Diamond Express: Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 11

Nimbus Records

Six cd set

In the 1980’s, Johnny Parth, a well-known Austrian music collector and curator, compiled significant collections of from the early days of blues recordings from the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He joined with Paul Oliver, a world authority and significant researcher of early blues musicians, provided significant notes and insights into the artists and their songs.  42 albums were initially released on the Saydisc Records label between 1982 to 1988. Those albums have  been compiled into 5 – 6 cd box sets that were released in the first seven box sets.  The collection has now been expanded to cover 72 CD’s. The additional cd’s are compiled from earlier cd’s released by Saydisc  in the late 60’s which further covered the early years of the blues both on song releases and, in many instances, field recordings of the musicians. The various sets cover the gamut of early blues from gospel, hokum, and ragtime leading to the advent of modern blues, rock & roll, and the 1960’s British blues boom.  Many of the recordings come from very obscure and rare 78’s. The box sets have all of Paul Oliver’s notes provided in the original releases.

As shown in the title, this is the eleventh box set release. For the most part, this set focuses on early piano blues. Those cd’s include Peetie Wheatstraw on two CD’s, Little Brother Montgomery, and a compilation of various piano players. Kokomo Arnold is the only non-piano playing blues artist in the set. However, his connection to the other music in the box is that Kokomo was a frequent performer with Peetie Wheatstraw. The final cd in the set focuses on a wide range of pre-WWII and post war recordings of gospel music.

The first cd is labeled simply as Piano Blues and features 14 songs by eight different artists. Oliver comments that prior to these releases, piano players were mostly ignored and not even particularly considered to be part of the history of blues. The obvious focus of historians was the southern influence, particularly Mississippi, of the era’s guitarists. The earliest recordings on the album are two songs, “Crazy About My Baby” and Bustin’ The Jug”, from Blind Roosevelt Graves featuring Will Ezell on piano recorded in Richmond, Indiana in 1929. Most of the remaining songs in the set by Shorty Bob Parker, Little Brother Montgomery, Springback James, Mississippi Jook Band (Roosevelt Graves with Cooney Vaughan on piano), Lee Brown with Sam Price on piano, and Pinetop and Lindberg (Aaron & Lindberg Sparks) were recorded in the mid 1930’s. Cripple Clarence Lofton has two songs, “I Don’t Know” (1939) and “Policy Blues” (1943).

James “Kokomo” Arnold, born in Lovejoy, Georgia, is featured on the second cd. Fourteen songs are again featured on the album. The songs provided are from 1935 to 1938 and are a selection from over 100 songs Kokomo recorded in his brief career. Kokomo’s musical trip began in 1930 under the name of Gitfiddlin’ Jim. The represented songs also do not include his best-known songs that were hits in the era, “Milk Cow Blues” and “Old Original Kokomo Blues”, the first still showing up on modern era albums. His bottleneck guitar style is considered to be unique. Arnold reportedly got fed up with the music industry, stepped away to work in a Chicago mill, and further refused to ever have anything to do with the recording industry although he continued to play.

Discs 3 and 4 features Peetie Wheatstraw. The first is titled The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1930-36) and the latter’s title is The High Sheriff From Hell (1936-38). Wheatstraw, real name William Bunch, was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. He recorded over 170 songs under his own name and was one of the top-selling blues artists of his era. Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Boy Williamson and even Robert Johnson cited him as an influence. His songs deal heavily with his sexual prowess, gambling and other similar proclivities leading to his nicknames provided as the series’ album titles. Both cd’s include 16 songs. His song “Sugar Mama” including Lonnie Johnson on guitar was later recorded by John lee Hooker.

Disc 5 Little Brother Montgomery (1930 – 1969) covers the career of Eurreal Montgomery, who was born in 1906 in Kentwood, Louisiana. Unlike many pianists, Montgomery could play anything from jazz to opera and in the 1960’s was a regular performer at Chicago’s McParlans Lounge, an Irish bar, where he mixed his blues with popular Irish songs. Unlike the first four cd’s, the sixteen songs are about an equal mix of songs from the 30’s and songs from the 50’s and 60’s finishing with three songs from a 1969 release, two years after he had to quit performing after suffering a stroke. Jean Carroll provides vocals on two of those latter songs.

On Disc 6, the music provides 26 songs divided equally between pre-war and post-war gospel music. The disc’s title, Black Diamond Express to Hell, somehow feels in contrast to the music presented. Per notes provided by The Rev. Doug Constable for this cd, the music is “an expression of common traditions and social outlook, common convictions about man’s way to redemption, and of an intimacy within the congregation that is unfamiliar to members of European churches”. The music presented here is authentic music as heard in many church gatherings of African Americans.

As might be expected of recordings that were transferred from 78 RPM records and from field recordings made from setups from the back of a car almost 100 years ago, the music is scratchy and sometimes difficult to hear the vocals. However, for those who wants to delve into the deep history of the blues, the Bluesmasters series is certainly an excellently archived collection. The twelfth and final box set in the series is scheduled for release in September 2023 and will feature Matchbox’s role in the introduction to the British blues boom.

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