Issue 15-24 June 17, 2021

 In This Issue 

Steve Jones has our feature story Remembering Maxwell Street. We have four blues reviews for you this week including a new music from Guy Davis, Johnny Rawls, Reverend Freakchild and Mark Harrison Band.


 Featured Interview – Remembering Maxwell Street 

This feature originally ran in the Crossroads Blues Society Newsletter. Used by permission.

imageChicago’s Maxwell Street was an iconic place that helped define Chicago Blues and, eventually, much of rock and roll. There was a great film that is about to get a re-release entitled Cheat You Fair by Phil Ranstrom on how Maxwell Street came to be, how it became a home for the blues and a place where urban blues helped give rise to rock and roll, and the demise of the area due to gentrification.

I also reached out to artists and blues fans about their remembrances of Maxwell Street as I put this together and I was overwhelmed by the wonderful history. Having moved to the Midwest in 1997, I missed going to Maxwell Street in it’s heyday, but I got a great sense of how great a place it was from the interviews, film and recordings from the storied neighborhood’s musicians.

I spent a good amount of time with John Primer. He looked back at Maxwell Street with fondness.

“When I came to Chicago in 1963 my mom and stepfather told me about Maxwell St. They told me it was a good place to buy cheap clothes, good cheap food and great Chicago blues every Sunday. I remember going there on the bus one Sunday morning. I had gone down there to check it out with friends on a Saturday, but they didn’t have music on Saturday so I made a plan to go back on Sunday. Once I got there on Sunday the streets were even more crowded than they were on Saturday. The streets were so crowded I could barely walk and see things with the smell of onions and sausage everywhere. You could buy most anything down there. People were selling things on the ground and on tables everywhere for cheap. You could make a good deal and I would always bargain with them. Most of the time I would just walk around and look at stuff.”

John went on about the musicians playing on Sundays.

“All the musicians had their spots where they played. They performed in the parking lots where stores had been torn down. They borrowed electricity from stores or people that lived there or some of them used generators. There would be about 10 different bands that you could see on Sundays. They kept a distance from each other and they played for tips. There were some big names playing down there like: Robert Nighthawk, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Howlin Wolf, Eddie Shaw, One Arm John playing harmonica, you could see L.V. Banks, you could see the bass player – Dancing Perkins and John Embry. You could see the dancing guy named Muck Muck Man down there doing his thing and kicking up dust with no shoes on (he didn’t wear shoes in the winter-time either!). There was a guy named John Henry Davis, he played with his band called The Mississippi Clarksdale Band on Saturday and Sunday. He let people come up and play like a jam session. I sat in with him and his band on Sundays sometimes.”

Primer’s first band got together and used Maxwell Street as a proving ground for their music.

“It was about this time when I put my very first band together called The Maintainers. We would rehearse at Arthur Adams house; he was the rhythm guitar player along with Poncho the bass player and James Ford the drummer and myself. Every time we would go to Arthur’s house we would hear this old guy upstairs playing guitar and singing blues with his kids. So he would hear us play and finally he came up to us and talk to us about playing together as a band down on Maxwell Street on Sundays. So agreed and he started to rehearse with us.

“This guy was Pat Rushing. Pat Rushing was the most popular guy playing down there on Maxwell Street because he had his son Louis playing bass , his youngest son playing drums and his two daughters, Audrey and Annette, singing. When his kids went back to school, our band The Maintainers played with him and sometimes when he wasn’t down there at all The Maintainers could use his spot. Spots were really hard to get down on Maxwell Street, they were popular and always full. We were lucky to get hooked up with Pat.

“We played for tips and made about $40 a day sometimes. That was good money! We would get there early so no one would get our spot and set up at 8am. We would play from 9am to 3pm. It seemed to me that musicians were jealous of each other. They were trying to always cut your head and take your audience.”

It was not only blues on Maxwell Street. Gospel played a big role in the public performances Primer noted.

“They had a few gospel bands down there on Sundays too. The most popular one was Jim Brewery. He played guitar with three women that sang gospel songs. I really liked the way he played guitar. I learned from him and watched him play chords and liked his rhythm and picking style.

“After playing all day and watching Jim Brewery I would be hungry, so I would walk around the corner to Halsted Street and go to Nate’s Deli and get me some of that good ole soul food.” Food was an important part of Maxwell Street. Primer commented, “The soul food was my favorite at Nate’s Deli, but the number one place was Jim’s Original Hot Dog Stand on Halsted and Maxwell Street. The best thing they made there was either the hot dogs or the polish sausage.”

“If you played good down there, the club owners would recognize you and hire you at their clubs. It was a great way to get your name out and meet other musicians and network in the music business in Chicago. If you didn’t play down there you would have to audition at a club back then,”

“None of us were recorded much, so we didn’t have a way to prove our skills. Pat Rushing played at a lot of the clubs in Chicago – West side and South side, so that helped me and The Maintainers get better gigs.”

I asked who he predominantly played with on Maxwell Street,

“I played with Pat Rushing and his kids with The Maintainers band: Robert “Poncho” Gregory on bass, James Ford on drums, Arthur Adams on rhythm guitar, Laverne Adams and Ruby Ford singer and me on guitar and vocals. I also sat in with John Embry and L.V. Banks mostly. They all started out with Pat Rushing and then one by one left Pat and got their own band.”

Primer played there all the way until things closed down in 1984, and noted there were many a famous performer on Maxwell Street.

“There were some big names playing down there like: Robert Nighthawk, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Howlin Wolf, Eddie Shaw, One Arm John playing harmonica, you could see L.V. Banks, you could see the bass player – Dancing Perkins and John Embry. You could see the dancing guy named Muck Muck Man down there doing his thing and kicking up dust with no shoes on- he didn’t wear shoes in the winter-time, either!”

Relations between Blacks and Jews were always good.

“We all got along because none of us had much and we all helped each other out to try to make a little something to get by, Primer noted.

“A lot of us were new to Chicago and met up there on the weekends to make deals and to buy things for a good price and to meet people. Most of the stuff was cheap down there because it was rejects or second hand stuff, so the store owners were making good money on it. Good food, good music and good deals makes for a great flea market!”

There was good money to be made on Maxwell Street.

“Back then I played at Theresa’s Lounge, Lovie’s Lounge, Bow Tie, Tom Musician Club, and the 1815 Club, Majestic Lounge and house parties. When I played at these clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, I would make about $10 or $15 a night,” claimed Primer. “When I worked on Maxwell Street, I would make $40 a day most Sundays, unless Pat would cheat us and he would take more. We made about $2 or $3 at house parties, so that wasn’t a good gig back then. The whole band would make $20 to split plus free food.” Obviously Maxwell Street was a major boon to Chicago’s blues musicians.

If it was not for Maxwell Street, Chicago and urban blues might never have evolved and we might not have had rock and roll. I asked Primer how important did he think Maxwell Street was in creating what we know today as Chicago Blues? Did it have a bigger impact than the clubs did?

“It was a great place for Chicago Blues because it gave us a place to play, we could practice and get better, we networked with each other, we pushed each other to become the best and we had to all have our own individual styles to show out and be different. But when Muddy Waters electrified his Blues to get a bigger audience to make more tips, he changed Blues forever on Maxwell Street! This took the blues to a different level totally,” Primer stated.

“Coming to Chicago blues was electric and when I was growing up, in Mississippi it was acoustic. This made a big impact on me because I loved the sound and was drawn to it just like everyone else. I had to get an electric guitar and amp when I came to Chicago, it wasn’t enough to have just an acoustic guitar.”

We asked John if he ever lived on or near Maxwell Street.

“I lived on the west side of Chicago at 312 S. Leavitt and Jackson in an apartment with my mom and step father. This was my first place to live when I got to Chicago from Mississippi. It was a great place to live.

“I was 18 years old when I got to Chicago. There were plenty of stores and girls to flirt with. We lived near Crane High School. Everyone knew each other and a lot of them came from Mississippi or from down south. It was safe at night time and everyone looked out for each other. We would sing doo wop on the corner at night just to have fun. Sometimes I went to Riverview Park or to the movies with my friends to hang out. I could hear bands rehearsing blues, soul music, doo wop, gospel and jazz on every block near where I lived.

“There was a club around the corner from my apartment called Pops Club on Leavitt and Van Buren where they had blues bands come in there. Some of the bands I would see play there on Saturdays were Elmore James, Howlin Wolf, Eddie Shaw and others. I would stand outside and look in the window until they ran me away. Then on Sundays I would go see Luther Allison play in a backyard of a house near my apartment. Oh boy, everyone had a great time back then, I really wish it would be that way today. Things are so hard and violent now.”

We asked if he thought something like Maxwell Street could ever return to Chicago?

“Yes it is possible, but it would be difficult. Chicago has changed a lot. The story and history of Maxwell Street needs to be taught to this generation. That area is now all condo’s, it’s totally different now. Crime is a problem too, but I do believe it can come back with some hard work.”

“Many cities recognize the blues and preserve its rich history like New Orleans and Memphis. They make a lot of money from preserving their culture and heritage. Chicago decided under Mayor Daley not to go in that direction and for that the music and the musicians suffer. The people in Chicago and its politicians need to see the wealth it has in its music and culture. I know that Columbia College and Chicago Blues Revival are trying to bring this back. We need the people in these communities to demand the city start preserving its culture or it will be lost forever.

Lastly, we asked what else John had to say about Maxwell Street. He feels a new version of Maxwell Street needs to be developed.

“I truly wish we could have another Maxwell Street in Chicago because it did so much for me and for my career. I know it would help so many other people too.

“I do think it could be possible and I would love to help this cause. It is truly a shame that Chicago has abandoned its history and culture. They can make it into another Beale Street or another Bourbon Street and make a ton of money on it. I believe they could get help to do this. One place I think would be a great location would be in the Bronzeville neighborhood near Muddy Waters house or near the old Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street. They could also save the Forum building on 43rd St. and make that the center of a new Maxwell St. The group Chicago Blues Revival is trying to bring the music back to these areas and to teach the people there about their music history.”

When asked if he thought all this could become a reality, he said, “Anything is possible!”

As we already noted elsewhere, Maxwell Street blues originally came from the Mississippi Delta. That acoustic Delta Blues began to be transformed into electrified, urban blues that we now call “Chicago Blues.” This sound was what made bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Animals, John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, The Yardbirds and so many others across the pond took note of and brought back to us in the British Invasion as rock and roll. Technology influenced the blues all over, whether it was Chicago, Memphis, or wherever, but it was the Chicago Blues sound that became electric blues and spurred on my generation’s early rock icons.

A typical Sunday on Maxwell Street

Long time Rockford, IL DJ Rich Gordon calls Maxwell Street, “A magic moment in time.” He compares the original Maxwell Street to what is going on today in Chicago and says, “It is not the same. There is a special, magical moment that existed before. It is very difficult go capture that today; things have changed.”

Blues Blast Writer and long-time blues fan Marty Gunther (talked about, “The electricity of the place. I moved to the city early in 1970, and went there often until leaving in ’83. The music was on every street corner, a mix of internationally famous bluesmen, broken down wannabes and young whites learning the trade from the ground up.” Some of the bands he remembers from Maxwell Street include James Cotton, Junior Wells, Big Walter Horton, Houston Stackhouse and Big John Wrencher.

Marty commented on the Jewish and Black Population there. “Both ethnicities had been victimized by society for centuries, robbed of being able to be part of the mainstream. Despite the day-and-night differences in upbringing, the similar shared suffering was a major unifying force. It’s also the reason the blues world is populated by so many Jewish musicians today.”

It was not just blacks that made music famous on Maxwell Street. The Jewish community had strong musical ties, too. Swing and jazz band leader and clarinet player Benny Goodman was from Maxwell Street. Klezmer music abounded on Maxwell Street; it is based on Jewish folk tunes and Romani (Gypsy) rhythms and remains popular today. Bernard Abrams founded Ora Nelle Record Company on Maxwell and released Little Walters first record in 1947.

Other than the occasional pick pocket, no one thought the area particularly dangerous and many brought family and friends to Maxwell Street. It was a place for bargains, good food and good music.

The movies have visited Maxwell Street. Most notably, who can forget Aretha Franklin at Nate’s Deli in The Blues Brothers film? Formerly at 807 West Maxwell Street, Nate Duncan sold off his prized place in 1995 to UIC. He worked at the location formerly when it was owned by the Lyon’s family and he bought the place when they retired and continued to operate the restaurant as a Jewish deli. John Lee Hooker also appeared as a street musician outside Nate’s in the film.

Nate’s Deli was a fixture on Maxwell Street

The long-time blues icon John Grimaldi (AKA Studebaker John) first discovered Maxwell Street as a kid working with his dad. “I was pretty young; I worked for a my father’s small plumbing company on the summer break from school. We had to go down to Maxwell street to work.” While working there, he heard, “People would say that you couldn’t drive down the street on Sunday’s. I didn’t know why, .but I soon found out! One of the jobs we did had a recurring problem, so we got an emergency call early one Sunday morning.” This was the beginning of Grimaldi’s blues education.

“I had never seen anything like it; the streets were filled with people. We went to the job and got things fixed, then the guy’s I was with went to eat lunch at a deli that had the best corned beef sandwiches in Chicago.” But eating good food was not the biggest thing he found on Maxwell Street. “I wandered around the Maxwell Street market I heard the sound of live music and followed it till I came to an alleyway; it was there that I saw Big John Wrencher and his band playing. This was a life changing day for me.”

Studebaker John recalled, “I had messed around before playing harmonica, but I never heard anybody play it in a band as the lead instrument or play it in the style he was playing it! I was blown away by it!!! This raw, three-piece band with one amp (everything was plugged into it) and a cheap guitar and beat-up old drum set. What a sound! I didn’t recognize any of the songs, but I loved it just the same.”

So now Grimaldi was hooked. “After I was old enough to drive, I would drive down there in the early mornings on Sundays and go see Big John and other street musicians playing. I loved the music they played and would walk around and look for deals on musical instruments. I would also go by the record store that would have music playing on a speaker outside the store! It wasn’t till later that i found out they had recorded many of the street musicians and had the first recorded works of Little Walter and others!”

Big John Wrencher and Cary Bell performing on Maxwell Street

Big John Wrencher was someone Grimaldi could not get enough of. “Big John and his band would go down there after a late-night gig and sleep in their car until it got underway, and then set up and start playing as soon as people started coming!!” John recalled. Another of his favorites to see there was Cary Bell. If he had one regret, it was probably note ever seeing any of the bigger names there. “I never did see Robert Nighthawk or any real big stars out there like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf.”

Grimaldi never played on Maxwell Street. While he never played there, he noted, “It inspired me and many others to play music on a creative level.” And in addition to the corned beef, John enjoyed the Maxwell street polish and pork chops at the local Maxwell Street eateries. Despite not playing there, John and his band would hang out there. “After we started working as musicians, we would go down there at all hours of the night just to get something to eat!”

The demise of Maxwell Street was something on the minds of musicians there long before the 1990s. Grimaldi mentioned, “I think there was a loss of culture and of community. Chicago is known all over the world as the capital of the blues, but instead of embracing that the political parties were embarrassed by it and swept it under the rug and then finally tore it down. If you read one of the last interviews of Robert Nighthawk he talks about them wanting to tear Maxwell Street down, and that was in 1963 or so!”

Studebaker John noted about Maxwell Street and its’ influence on the blues and what it led to. “I think it had a big impact on Chicago blues, which in turn influenced artists to evolve into the music we call rock and roll.” Musicians loved to play there. “There was not much difference in the club scene; it was just a job to most of the musicians who loved to play and perform. The only difference was it was raw and wild on Maxwell Street. It wasn’t slick. It was real.”

Phil Ranstrom produced the film Cheat You Fair. He personally feels that the rock and roll we all grew up on would not have existed without Maxwell Street. “I believe that without Maxwell Street, rock & roll would not have been created as we know it,” Ranstrom said. “It was Maxwell Street that put Chicago on the map as “ground zero” for the electric blues, an idiom born out of necessity. In order to be heard in the large, outdoor crowds, blues artists had to amplify their instrument and, thus, created an entirely new kind of blues — a raw, hard-driving, electric sound reflecting the intensity of the world around them.”

“Two of the musicians most widely considered to be the founders of rock & roll, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, both played and developed their talents at Maxwell Street, especially Bo who told me that he “learned the blues on Maxwell Street”,” claims Ranstrom. “Chess Records opened their recording studio in Chicago because of the wealth of blues talent in Chicago … because of Maxwell Street.” Phil firmly believes that, “On any given day, Willie Dixon, Chess’ unofficial talent scout, could walk through Maxwell Street and find a dozen eager musicians willing to throw down on someone else’s record.”

His idea has good merit. “The Rolling Stones, themselves, would not have been formed if it wasn’t for the two albums that 18 year old Mick Jagger had in his hand while waiting for a train at the Dartford Station in 1961, inspiring Keith Richards to approach him and begin a conversation about their mutual love of the Chicago Blues. It was this famous meeting that led to them forming a group rooted in the blues, and it was those two albums, Rockin’ at the Hops by Chuck Berry, and The Best of Muddy Waters, that sparked the engine of arguably the greatest rock and roll band ever,” Phil mused. “Can you imagine rock & roll without The Rolling Stones, along with all the other bands they inspired?”

Ranstrom concluded in his comments to us, “It was Maxwell Street, along with other forces that collided during this period — poverty, prejudice and forced migration — that brought blacks and Jews together in this unlikely place and created a musical revolution.”

The legacy and impact of urban Chicago Blues and their evolution along Maxwell Street and on Chicago’s West and South sides created a whole new sound for music to take. The 1960’s began with major influences from folk music and the British Invasion influencing our rock and roll. With just the former and not the latter, what would rock music have become? Certainly the music in places like Memphis and elsewhere also evolved; rockabilly and a rawer form of jump blues emerged, but without the Chicago influences the British invasion may never have happened. It is hard to imagine no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and so many other bands and their music in our musical lexicon. Without Chicago’s Maxwell Street and the urban blues that they gave us, our musical lives would be a lot different than they are today.

New Orleans has Bourbon Street. Memphis has Beale Street. Chicago had Maxwell Street, but let it slip away from them. It is sad that there is no landmark place like that in the Windy City. There are some iconic clubs there still, but even they are downtown and on the North Side now. Maxwell Street and the essence of the origins of Chicago’s urban blues may no longer exist in any original physical locations, but it is part of the hearts and minds of music lovers and the knowledge of its’ roots must be preserved.

Writer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.


 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 4

imageGuy Davis – Be Ready When I Call You

M.C. Records MC-0088

13 songs – 59 minutes

One of the most gifted acoustic musicians on the planet, Guy Davis mixes light and airy melodies with profound observations about life in a troubled world on his latest album, a tour de force follow-up to Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train, which earned him and his partner, Fabrizio Poggi, a 2017 Grammy nomination.

The son of Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee — two of the brightest lights in the Civil Rights movement and foremost actors of their generation, Guy carries forward the songster tradition here, weaving together tunes that invoke images of prejudice, separation, tragedy and discord in a manner that’s both subtle and moving in its simplicity without being overbearing – something a lesser artist would find impossible to achieve.

A mix of blues and Americana, Davis penned 12 of the 13 tracks here – a rarity in a career that spans 27 years, 14 albums and honors as both a musician and actor. A gifted storyteller, his pleasant mid-range voice is more road-worn than ever while his talents on acoustic guitar, banjo and harmonica remain first-class.

Captured at LRS Recording and Jeff Haynes Studios, Be Ready When I Call You finds Guy in multiple musical settings. He’s backed by Professor Louie (keyboards), John Platania (guitars), Christopher James (mandolin, guitar, banjo), Mark Murphy (cello, upright bass), Gary Burke (drums) and Casey Erdman, David Bernz and Timothy Hill on backing vocals.

The album pulls out of the station wistfully with the bare-bones blues, “Badnonkadonk Train” – a sly reference to sex addiction. Guy describes himself as having 19 women, but wanting one more. The choo-choo in the title runs over everyone in its path, including his preacher and the Devil, too, as he yearns for that one good lady who’ll mend his ways.

That tune serves as a benign introduction because complications begin setting in with “Got Your Letter in My Pocket.” Its sweet, unhurried melody belies words that describe a man on the run after lying to a woman’s husband about not being in love with her after unknowingly fathering their child.

Things truly get serious with the simple “God’s Gonna Make Things Over,” the most tragic, poignant song in the set – and one of the most important tunes Guy’s penned in his career – two verses and alternating choruses capable of bringing anyone with a heart to tears and a simple retelling of massacre that destroyed Black Wall Street in Tulsa in 1921, a racist travesty that was buried in the sands of time until being unearthed recently.

The ballad “Be Ready When I Call You,” which follows, appears to offer a ray of hope. But that dissipates as soon as you hear the line “You know you got to tremble when the devil calls your name.” It flows into “Flint River Blues,” a condemnation of powers-that-be allowing the poisoning of the water supply in both the Michigan city and Newark, N.J., too. The theme carries forward in “Palestine Oh Palestine,” which yearns for the past as it describes conflict in the Middle East in the most simple of terms.

The subject of “I Got a Job in the City” – a medium-paced, true-blue shuffle — is a walk in the park when compared to the political statements that precede it even though it’s delivered from the stance of a man who needs a strong drink after a hard day. The same holds true for “I’ve Looked Around,” a ballad that reminds us all that everyone in America is an immigrant and asks if we’ve seen their hungry, nakedness or the suffering of their children.

A sprightly retelling of the Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf classic “Spoonful” offers up a bit of familiarity and comfort before “200 Days” details the closing of a mill the misery that results. The climate improves somewhat as Davis launches into the neo-ragtime number, “I Thought I Heard the Devil Call My Name,” before brightening dramatically with “Every Now and Then,” the celebration of an enduring love affair that reflects on troubles left behind.

An electrified blues-rocker, “Welcome to My World,” serves up another powerful statement to close, decrying white privilege, President Trump — without stating his name — and anyone who allows asylum-seekers’ infants to die at our borders. There are laws and a Constitution to protect us, he insists, as he warns that lawsuits await for anyone who stands in the path of truth, justice and the American way.

Available from most major retailers and strongly recommended for anyone with a deep social conscience and love for music with a message. It’s an emotional roller-coaster throughout, but definitely worth the trip!

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.


 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 4 

imageJohnny Rawls – Best of Johnny Rawls Vol. 1

Catfood Records CFR-030

14 songs – 60 minutes

In a career that began in Southern Mississippi more than 50 years ago, Johnny Rawls has proven to be one of the most consistently entertaining performers in the blues. A two-time BMA honoree for soul-blues album of the year and a 10-time nominee, he’s spent much of the past two decades on Texas-based Catfood Records, and celebrates the partnership with this disc, a collection of 14 of the top tracks he’s issued across nine CDs for the label.

Possessing a silky-smooth set of pipes, Johnny was already a star in high school in Gulfport, Miss., where he was already playing guitar in support of a trio of superstars: Joe Tex, Little Johnny Taylor and Z.Z. Hill. A longtime bandmate of O.V. Wright, one of the greatest voices and tunesmiths the genre has ever known, Johnny served as his bandleader until his passing in 1980.

One of the tightest groups in the business, O.V.’s band remained together and worked steadily for the next 13 years with Rawls running the show, frequently serving as the opening act for B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Milton. Johnny’s recording debut as a front man came at age 44 in 1985 in partnership with vocalist L.C. Luckett. They releases a pair of 45s and two albums prior to Rawls going solo in 1996 with the album Here We Go on Britain’s JSP imprint.

Now approaching 70, he’s the current standard bearer of soul-blues. His two most recent Catfood releases, Tiger in a Cage and Waiting for the Train, spent a combined 23 weeks in the No. 1 spot on Roots Music Report’s soul charts, and his work appears frequently in Downbeat magazine’s critics’ best-of-the-year lists. Grammy winner Jim Gaines (Santana) produced 12 of the 14 cuts in this collection, 10 of which were penned by Johnny and/or label owner Bob Trenchard in different combinations. Three tunes from O.V.’s songbook and one from Motown heavyweight Jimmy Ruffin round out the set.

Rawls is backed throughout by The Rays, the stellar, skintight Catfood sessions band: Johnny McGhee on guitar, Dan Ferguson on keys, Trenchard on bass, Richy Puga on drums and a horn section composed of Andy Roman and Nick Flood on saxes and Mike Middleton on trumpet. Otis Clay shares the mic with Johnny on two tracks and 14 other artists contribute horns, percussion and backing vocals.

Fittingly, “Red Cadillac” — the title song from Rawls’ Catfood – opens and takes listeners from Mississippi to Beale Street with “two Arkansas girls in the back.” Their radio’s tuned to WDIA, Johnny’s dressed in a “brand new suit and Alligator shoes” and “can’t wait to get on down.” A propulsive cover of Wright’s “Into Something (Can’t Break Loose)” – delivered with Clay — follows before the autobiographical “Born to the Blues” admits that – even after 40 years on the road – he still misses his Mississippi home.

Despite the passing of so many of his music friends, Johnny insists “Memphis Still Got Soul” while “California Shake” confirms that the Golden State has the most earthquakes, but insists that, instead of being fearful, you should get into the groove. The love ballad “Eight Men, Four Women” — which hit the No. 4 spot on Billboard’s R&B chart for O.V. in 1967 — follows before things heat up again with “Tiger in a Cage,” a smooth, funky statement against pushing drugs and giving up hope. The Don Robey-penned “Ace of Spades” – a 1970 hit for Wright – precedes the horn-powered political statement, “American Dream,” which finds the city “moving to a hip-hop beat” while the driver of a limo is moving too fast to allow the homeless a peek inside to see a better life. The mood brightens dramatically for “Can I Get It,” a rock-steady, medium tempo blues that finds Johnny having just cashed his paycheck and checking out the talent at the local club at closing time.

The final four cuts deal with differing themes that combine for another powerful statement. Johnny announces he’s the “last of his breed in “Soul Survivor” before teaming with Otis for Jimmy Ruffin’s “Whatever Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” admits that he’s slowly approaching the end of his life in “Waiting for the Train” before assuring fans “I Won’t Give Up” to close.

If you’re a fan of soul-blues, this collection is a must-have. And if you’ve been living in a cave for the past 40 years and weren’t aware of Johnny Rawls before, this is a sensational place to start. Strongly recommended.

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.


 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 4 

imageReverend Freakchild – Supramundane Blues

Treated and Released Records

CD 1: 13 Songs, 58 Minutes

CD 2: 5 Tracks, 20 Minutes

Styles: Esoteric Blues, Gospel Blues, Trance Blues, Blues Covers, Poetry

I’ve been rereading Stephen King’s Revival, about a Methodist preacher turned carnival showman turned faith healer turned occult madman. One man, three transformations. Prolific blues preacher Reverend Freakchild has also undergone several metamorphoses, taking fans with him through each stage. From singing Blues and Spirituals (2001) to filling a God Shaped Hole (2010), to expressing Illogical Optimism (2016), Freakchild keeps it real while also keeping it “out there.”

Now, on Supramundane Blues, he reworks the Good News while preaching his own, adding exotic instruments and an Eastern vibe. You may have heard “Soul of a Man” or “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” dozens of times, but never the way he plays them.

Several of these are brilliant, like “Good Shepherd” and the chilling “Jesus Just Left Chicago!” That second song’s opening note is less reminiscent of a church than the start of the sci-fi thriller Seconds. Boogie down while “Working on a Building,” with funky wah-wah organ and bassline. Above all, “Keep On Praying.” It features great guitar and a timeless message of persistence.

The first album of this set flips the script on gospel music, featuring three rearrangements of traditional tunes, eight covers, and two original numbers – “Factors of Awakening” and “Seven Billion Light Years Old.” The second CD, entitled Psychedelic Trip Hop Mass, is the reason I listed “Poetry” under “Styles.” The tracks on it are meaningful and transcendental, but they’re not blues songs. Fun fact: The sixth is entitled “Angus Dei,” as in beef, not God.

Co-performing with the Reverend (vocals, guitars and harmonica) are Chris Parker, Matt Rae, Hugh Pool, Lily Pool, Jon ‘Bones’ Ritchie Robinson, Patrick Carmichael, Drew Glackin, Malcolm Oliver, Steve Sirockin, Jason Hann, Mark Karan, Lisa Marie, Kevin Griffin, Reverend Shawn Amos, and Paul Soderman.

True confession: When I first encountered and reviewed him in 2015, yours truly didn’t know what to make of Freakchild and his weird, wild, and often wonderful interpretations of the blues. He wasn’t like anyone I or my father were used to hearing: not Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, or even Shemekia Copeland and Sean Costello. Nevertheless, once I understood what kind of musical gospel the Reverend proclaimed, I dug it. Most fans may prefer their blues down-to-earth, but for those seeking the Supramundane, you shall find it.

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.

 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 4 

imageMark Harrison Band – The Road To Liberty

Self release

21 songs – 70 minutes

Any new release by English acoustic singer/songwriter/guitarist, Mark Harrison, is cause for celebration. With five well-received albums already under his belt (most recently The Panoramic View, which was positively reviewed in Blues Blast Magazine in November 2018), The Road To Liberty continues to showcase Harrison’s memorable song writing, in particular his erudite lyrics, ear for a catchy melody and captivating delivery.

The Road To Liberty is a double album, and Harrison wrote all 21 tracks on the album. Playing both National and 12-string guitars, Harrison’s finger-picking comes from the melodious Mississippi John Hurt “syncopated thumb and index finger” school and indeed his plaintive, aching voice has the occasional hint of Hurt’s quiet conversational vocal style. Lyrically, however, the artists are poles apart. Harrison has always enjoyed addressing unusual subjects in his lyrics, whether imaging the bitter musings of an overly romanticized re-discovered blues musician (“Skip’s Song”), the challenges of industrial and technological development (“Toolmaker’s Blues”), or a narrator’s perceived snapshots of other people’s lives (“Passing Through”). He is not averse to using modern idioms (perhaps most obviously in “Don’t Let The Crazy Out The Bag (Too Soon)”) while it is often difficult not to infer a number of levels of meaning in the lyrics, for example on “Doin’ Time”, which could be construed as both a simple ode to time spent in jail or an appreciation of the metaphorical chains that hold most of us down every single day. By contrast, “Last Bus Home” – Harrison usually includes at least one instrumental on each album – is a dreamy 12 string meditation on the closing of the day.

Harrison is offered subtle and sensitive support by long-time sideman, Charles Benfield, on double bass and Ben Welburn on drums and percussion. Benfield also produced, mixed and mastered the album (with engineering by Buzz Allen), which was recorded at Station Road Studios in Stroud, England. The songs were recorded live with minimal overdubs, and Benfield and Allen have captured a warm, natural sound that accurately reflects a live performance. The CD is also beautifully packaged, with top notch artwork by Andy Hall of We Are Frank, who also contributed the distinctive artwork to all of Harrison’s previous albums, lending a nice thematic consistency to Harrison’s oeuvre in a similar vein to photo-design company Hipgnosis’s work with the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s.

As with all Harrison’s work, The Road To Liberty is album of songs, not excuses for solos, which together celebrate the best of humanity whilst wryly noting how rarely any of us achieve such an exalted state. There is a thoughtfulness and maturity in his work that is all too rare in today’s music industry, but there is humor and compassion too. In this respect, there shades of Chris Smither in his songs.

The Road To Liberty is another essential purchase from a musician who is rapidly becoming a British national treasure.

Reviewer Rhys “Lightnin'” Williams plays guitar in a blues band based in Cambridge, England. He also has a day gig as a lawyer.

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