Wolf Records – CD 120.496
17 songs – 59 minutes
When Henry Townsend passed at age 86 in 2006, the music world lost the last surviving member of the early blues community of St. Louis. But audiences everywhere get to enjoy him again in top form in this loving tribute from Wolf Records, captured live on the label’s home turf in Austria 21 years before he died.
Lovingly dubbed “Mule” because of his sturdy build, was born in Mississippi and raised in Cairo, Ill., but ran away from home at age 10 to the future home of the Gateway Arch. Equally gifted on piano and guitar, he walked into a recording studio for the first time at age 20, and was the only musician of his generation to be captured on disc in every decade from the 1920s through the 2000s, with his music appearing on most of the major labels of his time, including Paramount, Columbia, Bluebird and Brunswick.
Townsend’s piano style – influenced by Roosevelt Sykes, with whom he toured — fused St. Louis shuffles with barrelhouse, ragtime and jump, while his guitar picking drew comparisons to Charley Patton because of his unconventional style. His tenor vocal delivery harkened back to blues shouters, and his vivid memories provided invaluable material for researcher Paul Oliver, whose work in the ‘50s and ‘60s exposed the history of the blues to a worldwide audience.
Recorded in Linz, Lienz and Kufstein, Austria, on three consecutive nights in November 1980, this session captures Townsend in solo acoustic performance alternating from song to song on each instrument, assisted by wife Vernell, a blues and gospel singer in her own right, who handles vocals on two cuts. He’s on guitar for the familiar “Sloppy Drunk,” written by Sonny Boy Williamson, to kick off the set, accompanied by the audience with eager rhythmic clapping before delving into the Willie Brown classic, “M&O Blues,” on the keys.
Three originals — “Come On In My House” with an extended guitar solo, “All My Money Is Gone,” a song for piano written during the Great Depression, and “Old Clock Tickin’” – precede a version of the Sykes standard, “44 Blues.” Vernell steps to the mike for a duet on the original “Why We Love Each Other” before delivering the St. Louis Jimmy warhorse “Going Down Slow” by herself while her husband dazzles on the ivories.
A pair of early blues standards — Henry Spaulding’s “Cairo Blues” and “Rollin’ And Tumblin’,” penned by Hambone Willie Newbern – follow before Townsend launches a run of seven more originals — “Guitar Talkin’,” “When The Sun Rise,” “I Cry All Night,” “Got To Go,” “Moanin’ And Cryin’,” “I’m Sorry My Heart” and “Biddle Street” – to conclude the set.
This CD is a must for fans of old-time blues. It captures a first generation superstar at the top of his game, recorded in a manner that displayed his talent superbly. Pick it up. You won’t be sorry you did.