Various Artists – Midnight Steppers | Album Review

midnightstepperscdVarious Artists – Midnight Steppers

Fantastic Voyage – 2013

CD1: 23 tracks; 68 minutes: CD2: 23 tracks; 69 minutes: CD3: 24 tracks; 70 minutes

This extraordinary triple CD set follows on from two earlier releases from the same label which features guitarists (“Screaming And Crying”) and harmonica (“Wailing The Blues”).  These three CDs cover just about every pianist of note in the blues world from the 30’s to the 50’s and also some obscure artists that most blues listeners will not have heard before.  All credit to the UK label Fantastic Voyage for the work they have put into this series of discs.

The music on these discs is separated by categories though most of the music was recorded between 1935 and the mid-1950’s.  CD1 is subtitled ‘Bluebird Beat’ as much of the material originally appeared on Victor’s  Bluebird label; CD2 is ‘The Boogie Woogie Trio Plus’ with many exponents of that particular style; CD3 is ‘Post-War Piano’.

‘Bluebird Beat’ includes the source of the title of the whole set in “Midnight Steppers” which is actually a Big Bill Broonzy tune with piano by Josh Altheimer (one of those less well-known pianists, at least to this reviewer), a really catchy Big Bill number.  More famous pianists and more famous songs appear: Big Maceo performs the original of “Worried Life Blues”, later covered by many blues artists including Eric Clapton, as well as the wonderful instrumental “Chicago Breakdown”; Champion Jack Dupree gives us “Junker Blues”; Memphis Slim plays “Grinder Man Blues”; Curtis Jones’ “Tin Pan Alley” is the original of a tune later played by SRV.  Roosevelt Sykes (The Honey Dripper) was possibly the best known of the pianists of this era and he is represented by five cuts including the classic “44 Blues”.  Walter Davis appears three times and readers may forgive a liking for “Tears Came Rolling Down”, recorded in St Louis on the exact date of birth of this reviewer!

CD2 opens with what is probably the all-time classic of the boogie woogie style and the earliest track on this collection, Meade Lux Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train Blues”.  An influence on many pianists (even Keith Emerson of ELP did a cover of this tune), Meade played solo and in a trio with fellow boogie pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson.  In fact these three pianists dominate the set with 13 tracks featuring one or more of them on CD2.  Also weighing in are Jimmy Yancey, Montana Taylor and Cripple Clarence Lofton.  Many people will think that “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” was Pinetop Perkins’ tune but in fact it was written and recorded in 1928 by Clarence Smith, so the version here is also a cover!  Towards the end of this disc Albert Ammons gives us covers of two well-known popular songs in “Roses Of Picardy” and Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good”, albeit done up in typical Ammons style, probably demonstrating the decline in public interest in pure boogie woogie.

CD3 is all post-war and includes both the largest number of names familiar to blues listeners as well as some of the most obscure too!  Muddy Waters appears doing “Young Fashioned Ways” at Chess studios with Otis Spann at the piano; a 1955 Chess session finds Howling Wolf singing “I Have A Little Girl” with Henry Gray (still performing today) at his side; Robert Lockwood Junior is heard in 1951 covering Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” with Sunnyland Slim at the piano; Amos Milburn’s “Chicken Shack Boogie” features some great, cool sax playing in a 1947 LA session and the 1952 original of Eddie Boyd’s classic “Five Long Years” also features.  It is always a pleasure to hear such great artists and tunes but equally fascinating to discover some less well-known names such as Bob Gaddy, Dr Hepcat, Thunder Smith, Lonnie Lyons and Leroy Ervin, all of whom were discoveries for this reviewer.  Little Willie Littlefield was only 16 when he recorded “Little Willie’s Boogie”, a tune that would have fitted into CD2 with equal facility; he recorded for many years, passing away only in 2013.  Otis Spann, Muddy’s pianist for many years, died far too young and was not heard on his own until 1960; his “Otis In The Dark” is the final cut on the collection and the only track to creep into the 1960’s, recorded 23 August 1960.

This excellent collection contains something for all blues lovers and is well worth investigating, both to hear all the fine music and to learn about some of the lesser known players here from the very informative sleevenotes written by Mike Rowe.

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