Sleepy John Estes with Hammie Nixon – Live in Japan
CD: 21 songs; 73:24 Minutes
Styles: Traditional Acoustic and Harmonica Blues
When it comes to purity, how does one know it when one sees it – or hears it? There are a few measures by which to detect perfection: pure gold is twenty-four karat, a pure alcoholic drink is 200-proof, and pure blues is that of John Adam “Sleepy John” Estes.
Born in 1899 in Nutbush, TN to a sharecropper father, he began his professional career at nineteen. According to Wikipedia, “Estes made his debut as a recording artist in Memphis, Tennessee in 1929, at a session organized by Ralph Peer for Victor Records.”
In 1974 and 1976, respectively, Sleepy John and severely-underrated harp player Hammie Nixon recorded two LP’s: “Blues Live! Sleepy and Hammie Meet Japanese People” and “Blues is A-Live”. These rare blues artifacts were only previously released in Japan in the 1970’s. It’s a shame that U.S. fans haven’t gotten to hear them until now, forty-some years later. Fortunately, Estes and Nixon more than make up for lost time, presenting twenty-one total selections (nine originals, two covers, eight traditional numbers, and two spoken-vocal tracks).
The Japanese ensemble Yu Ka Dan (translated as ‘sad song band’) accompanies the main musicians on three songs, featuring Kantaro Uchida on lead guitar, Hidekatsu Kimura on second guitar, bassist Kenji Hanaoka, and drummer Kazuo Shimada. Estes has a signature ‘crying’ vocal sound, which carries a quality of old age even on his early records. The songs below display both his and Hammie Nixon’s voices in fine form:
Track 06: “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” – This cover of a Sam Theard tune is one of the most infectious on the album. “You asked my wife for a meal, you rascal you. You asked my wife for a meal, you dirty dog. You asked my wife for a meal, something that you tried to steal. I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you.” One might not think the kazoo to be a powerful blues instrument, but Hammie plays that earlier-days-favorite with pep here.
Track 16: “Fox Chase” – Written by Nixon instead of Estes, track sixteen is a perplexing yet persistent worm in one’s ears. It mostly consists of harmonica and howling: that’s right, the vocals are Hammie’s best hound-dog impressions. One can’t help but wonder if the Japanese-speaking audience understood what he was ‘barking’ about, but if not, they applauded anyway.
Track 19: “Love Grows In Your Heart” – This might be the one traditional ditty with which it’s easiest to sing along, even if one’s English is limited: “Love is a thing that grows in your heart, and nothing but death cause it to part.” Clap along and/or grab a dance partner, because “Love” prompts the question: How on earth did it take 40 years for American blues lovers to hear it?
Come be introduced (or re-introduced) to Sleepy John Estes “Live in Japan”!