Various Artists – Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection | Album Review

Various ArtistsCadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection

Earwig Music Company, Inc.

Disc 125 Tracks/73:59
Disc 227 Tracks/71:44
Disc 324 Tracks/72:11
Disc 425 Tracks/71:13

Born in Mississippi, Narvel Eatmon waited until he landed in Chicago to be transformed into Cadillac Baby, a hustler who worked as a radio disk jockey, songwriter, and club owner. Seeing opportunity in the multitude of blues musicians populating Chicago in the latter part of the 1940s, Cadillac Baby started a record label, helped out by a sister’s investment, and named after his wife, Bertha, nicknamed “Bea,” releasing their first record in 1959. It was primarily a blues label, although Eatmon was always searching for that elusive hit record, leading to titles in R&B, vocal group, teen ballads, and gospel genres.

While Chess Records was the dominate Chicago blues label, there were plenty of other smaller labels in the city that made an impact. Cobra Records, run by Eli Toscano, is known for classic titles from Otis Rush and material from the early stages of Magic Sam’s career. J.O.B. Records featured releases by J.B. Lenoir, Snooky Pryor, and piano great Sunnyland Slim. Bob Koester was just getting his distinguished Delmark Records label started while Vee-Jay Records had a string of hits with artists like John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and the iconic sounds of Jimmy Reed. Bea & Baby Records never quite reached the heights of those acclaimed labels. But now, thanks to this magnificent box set from Michael Frank at Earwig Records, blues fans are able to get a deep appreciation for a label that documented some of the unsung members of the Chicago blues community in addition to giving several musicians their first taste of future stardom.

The box set consists of a hard cover booklet, with Eatmon feature on the cover, smiling in front of his store that sold groceries, candy for neighborhood children, and, of course, his latest records. The four discs are housed in tight pockets on the inside of the front and back covers. Each disc has a different colored Bea & Baby label at the center. The opposite pages have track listings for each disc. The 130 page booklet is divided into several sections. After the table of contents, there are two pages for each disc that list each track with known recording information including artist, band members, recording date and studio.

The next section features an in-depth interview that Jim O’Neal did with Cadillac Baby in 1971, that ran in Issue #6 of Living Blues magazine. The label owner chronicles his life story with enthusiasm and more than a little self-promotion, while playing a bit loose with the facts at several points. Following that, O’Neal takes thirty pages to expand on the interview, taking readers deeper into the history of the label as well as the owner’s various clubs and stores. Interspersed are vintage photos, ads from the Chicago Defender, and documents that detail the label’s business activity. Two photos, each spread over adjoining pages, show Cadillac Baby standing proudly next to a Cadillac, in front of his club. In the second one, he is joined by his wife and two daughters.

Noted blues writer and historian Bill Dahl takes over for fifty pages devoted to each artist appearing on the collection, along with a list of each track they are featured on. Dahl brings life to each artist, generating interest and respect for many musicians who spent little time in the spotlight, even in Chicago. For two tracks that lack any recording information, Dahl outlines the steps taken to try to identify the band and lead vocalist. The five gospel acts on the set are discussed in detail by Robert M. Marovich, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Gospel Music. Then producer Michael Robert Frank wraps things up with his heartfelt reflections and recollections on his relationship with Cadillac Baby and the legacy of the Bea & Baby label.

Five other highlights are the recordings that bring Cadillac Baby to life in all of his glory. The first one leads off the collection. It was recorded in the studio for the label’s lone long-playing album release, Colossal Blues. With an overdubbed audience, the impresario belts out a welcome to patrons of Cadillac Baby’s Show Lounge on Chicago’s south side, highlighting honored guests from radio, sports, and blues communities. The next clip, entitled The Legend of Cadillac Baby, is thirteen minutes of the owner spinning his delightful tale for a 1983 edition of Steve Cushing’s Blues Before Sunrise radio program. Another part of that interview follows up with Cadillac Bay telling the humorous tale of how pianist Detroit Junior (Emery Williams, Jr.) acquired his stage name, none to happy when he found his record on a local jukebox under a different name, as Cadillac Baby had failed to mention the switch, done in hopes of generating greater sales. The other three clips are from O’Neal’s interview, with the owner covering his entry into the record business, his foray into gospel music, and the piece that closes the set, with Cadillac Baby stating the principle that was the driving force throughout his career.

Under his leadership, the Bea & Baby label made a valiant attempt to capture the attention of record buyer, starting with the first release from pianist Eddie Boyd, who some years earlier had scored a major hit on J.O.B. with his classic, “Five Long Years”. Boyd and his band, with Robert Lockwood Jr. on guitar, did two originals, “I’m Commin’ Home” and “Thank You Baby,” with Ronald Wilson delivering strong tenor sax solos on both tracks. The second issue featured the T-Bone Walker inspired guitar work of singer L.C. McKinley. From there, the various releases are presented in sequential order, with Boyd featured on six more cuts on the first disc, including two that Cadillac Baby released with the Key Hole logo, adding backing vocals to both tracks. Eleven year-old Faith Taylor, backed by the Sweet Teens, uses her sweet voice to great effect on two cuts.

The disc also includes Detroit Junior’s “Money Tree,” his hit that caused the commotion over his name change. The label’s best selling record, “Trying To Make A Living” by singer Bobby Saxton, was cut at the end of an Earl Hooker session. Despite it’s popularity, Saxton never recorded again other than a duet for an obscure Chicago label. The flip side was Earl Hooker’s instrumental, “Dynamite,” showcasing the guitarist’s impressive abilities. Little Mac Simmons lead the band at Cadillac Baby’s lounge, singing and blowing plenty of harmonica. He appears on twelve tracks on the set, staring with the hearty shuffle, “Times Are Getting Tougher,” limiting himself to singing while Eddie King Milton adds a killer guitar break.

The second disc leads off with the first recordings by Hound Dog Taylor, doing two songs that became staples of his repertoire, “My Baby Is Coming Home” and “Take Five”. Sunny land Slim makes his first appearance with two easy-rolling tunes with more of Lockwood Jr.’s stellar guitar accompaniment. Another legendary figure, James Cotton, recorded two tracks in 1963, “One More Mile” and ”There Must Be A Panic On,” sticking to singing with his powerful voice, letting Little Mac fill in the harp parts. He returns the favor on two of Mac’s sides cut the same day, getting in a vibrant solo over the horn section on “I’m Your Fool”. The late singer Andre Williams, a notorious label-hopper with hits like “Bacon Fat” and “Jail Bait,” did two tracks for Cadillac Baby, including the fine ballad, “Please Give Me A Chance”. Other highlights include the fiery instrumental “Sampson” from a group lead by bass player Singing Sam Chatmon with the Lacy Gibson on guitar, and two tracks by guitarist Lee Jackson that will leave you wanting more.

The first two cuts on Disc 3 have a holiday theme, as Jackson lays down a spirited vocal on “The Christmas Song,” with the flip side being Clyde Lasley running down the sordid tale when “Santa Came Home Drunk”. Little Mac and Sunnyland Slim return with multiple tracks. Simmons impresses with an energetic “Mother-In-Law Blues” and a cover of “I’m Your Hoochie Cootchie Man,” backed by Sunnyland Slim plus Hubert Sumlin and Eddie Taylor on guitar. That duo also backs up Sunnyland on “House Rock,” a tune that certainly lives up to the title, one of five tracks from the piano man. Arelean Brown sings with a gritty edge on her two tracks, backed by Scotty & the Rib Tips, with the slow blues “I Love My Man” hitting the spot. Homesick James Williamson unleashes his slide guitar on three cuts, backed by Sunnyland Slim and Willie Williams on drums. The trio creates quite a stir on the rocking instrumental, “Homesick Sunnyland Special”. Andrew “Blueblood” McMahon served a long stretch as Howlin’ Wolf’s bass player before heading out on his own. His four tracks feature an all-star line-up with Sunnyland, Little Mac, Sumlin and Taylor on guitar, Williams on drums, and Odie Campbell on bass, letting Blueblood focus on his vocals, with “Lost In The Jungle” being a strong effort.

The last disc keeps the blues rolling with two tracks with Williams handling the lead vocals with his rough style while Fred Below takes over behind the drums and Carey Bell peppers the track with some fine harp blowing. There was speculation that the two songs attributed to the Unknown Blues Band were actually by Roosevelt Sykes, but further research failed to find consensus. Then the project takes a huge leap into the world of hip-hop, with two cuts by 3D (Richard Davenport), a seventeen year-old rapper the Cadillac Baby and Frank thought had great potential. The tracks represent a giant leap forward in production values for the label, sounding revolutionary compared to previous songs. The cuts still sound fresh today, twenty years after they were recorded. It was also the last project that Cadillac Baby worked on prior to his passing in 1991. The set’s notes explain the reasons why this detour ultimately proved to be an ill-fated approach that Frank quickly abandoned.

After three spoken word skits that might feature Clyde Lasley, the direction shifts again to the acoustic blues of Sleepy John Estes on guitar and Hammie Nixon on vocal and harmonica. Their down-home style offers another sharp departure from the electric Chicago blues sound, which may account for the tracks being un-issued until now. The last half of Disc 4 features five gospel groups, spanning the soaring vocal harmonies of the Gloryaires to the exciting lead singing of Eddie Dean and Johnny Crawford backed by the Biblical Aires. The Norfolk Singers started out singing in the acapella style, but aided instrumental backing by the time they cut their tracks for Cadillac Baby. Later recording for Peacock Records, one of the premier gospel labels, the Pilgrim Harmonizers were skilled at singing for salvation, as witnessed by the simmering emotions generated on “Over The Hill”. An ordained minister who once played guitar on a Mahalia Jackson session, Samuel Patterson is a sturdy vocalist, but his two performances lack the depth of the four groups that precede him. All of the gospel tracks were issued on Miss Records, another one of Cadillac Baby’s imprints.

Every aspect of this project reflects the hard work, respect, and love that Michael Frank invested in bringing this comprehensive summary of the Bea & Baby label to fruition. Spread over a hundred tracks, the historic legacy of the label is revealed note by note, all made possible by Narvel “Cadillac Baby” Eatmon, a man who lived by the motto,”Blues is my soul”. This collection is a must-have for any serious blues listener – and may become the standard for how to do a deluxe box set!

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