John and Sylvia Embry – Troubles | Album Review

johnandsylviaembrycdJohn & Sylvia Embry – Troubles

Delmark Records

17 songs – 66 minutes

1980 was a pretty bleak year for popular music. Disco had peaked and the charts were once again filled with middle of the road songs such as Olivia Newton John’s “Magic”, Styx’s “Babe” and Air Supply’s “Lost In Love”. The future for blues looked bleak. Eric Clapton had led a depressing procession of talented players who, despite the best of intentions, were giving the genre a bad name with limp performances, flaccid recordings and over-driven, over-long and over-blown guitar solos. But even in those dark days, there were significant signs of life, of musicians going back to the basics and finding once again the driving heartbeat of real blues. In Chicago, Albert Collins released Frostbite and in Texas, The Fabulous Thunderbirds put out What’s The Word, their second album and still an all-time classic of raw, stripped-back electric blues.  And in numerous bars around the world, unheralded bands continued to produce great music for a small but appreciative audience.

Troubles, first released in 1980 and now re-released on the Delmark label, is a small gem of a record that perfectly captures the rough and ready Chicago sound of the late 1970s.  And it kicks like a mule. Much of the album, originally released on Razor Records as After Work, was recorded on just one day: 19 January, 1979, the day after John recorded his single “I Love The Woman” b/w “Johnny’s Bounce”, both of which are included on this disc.

Queen Sylvia Embry played bass and sang with a warm, passionate gospel-tinged voice. A second vocalist, drummer Woody Williams (Lefty Dizz’s brother), also features on a number of songs and he adds fine harmonies to the cover of Wilson Pickett’s “I Found A Love”. Johnny “Guitar” Embry was very much a guitarist of the Chicago school, with strong hints of Buddy Guy, Sammy Lawhorn and a little Magic Sam in his Stratocaster playing, whether on instrumentals such as “Razor Sharp” (which also features Riler “Iceman” Robinson on guitar) or staying in the pocket and providing top class rhythm support.

Half of the ten tracks on the original album were originals and the other half a good selection of covers. This re-release benefits from the addition of five top quality out-takes (three of which are live recordings) as well as John’s single. Some of the songs are the standards the band would have played every night in the smoky bars in which they plied their trade – “Mustang Sally”; Freddie King’s “I Love The Woman”, Jimmy Reed’s “Going To New York” and BB King’s “Worry, Worry” – but every song is played with such verve and power that it is exciting to hear them all.

The liner notes are fascinating, for example explaining that “Keep Your Hands Off Her” was the first song of the recording session.  The vocal levels had not yet been set but the band was on fire and it was agreed that the musical value of the number outweighed the slightly ropey production, so it was included on the album. Overall, however, the production values are very good, with each instrument clearly recorded but with the ambience, fire and slight looseness of a live gig retained.

The only disappointing issue in respect of Troubles is that it was the only album released by John and Sylvia Embry. John died in 1987. Slyvia later released an album with Jimmy Dawkins and appeared on a number of compilations for the likes Arhoolie and Alligator before returning to her first love of gospel music. She died in 1992. It is a crying shame they weren’t able to release more records, but at least we have Troubles to remind us of their talents.

If you’re a fan of classic, no-frills, guitar-driven Chicago blues, you must hear this album.  It is a little beauty.

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