Various Artists – New York City Blues
26 Songs – 80 minutes
Serving as an audio companion to the book New York City Blues: Postwar Portraits From Harlem To The Village And Beyond, written by Larry Simon and edited by noted author and blues scholar John Broven, this compilation from Ace Records is another in their remarkable catalog of outstanding releases. Listening to this treasure trove of music documenting the New York City blues scene certainly highlights Simon’s assertion that the city deserves a greater level of respect for its contributions.
The opening cut, “New York City Blues,” performed by Larry Dale & the Houserockers, puts the spotlight on Dale, befitting the Texas-born guitarist who is prominently featured in the book. His cutting fretwork shines through on another track, “Bad Blood,” recorded under his given name of Ennis Lowery, from Champion Jack Dupree’s classic album, Blues From The Gutter, which delved into the the drug problem of NYC neighborhoods.
Blues fans will certainly recognize names like Blind Boy Fuller, the North Carolina acoustic artist who influenced a number of NYC musicians, as did the Rev. Gary Davis, as witnessed by his intricate guitar work on “Say No To The Devil”. The following cut, “Four Women Blues,” is delivered by Larry Johnson, who carried on the Davis style, regretfully without ever attaining the recognition his talent so richly deserved. It is always a pleasure to hear Ruth Brown, blessed with a voice that got Atlantic Records off to solid start with tracks like the swinging “Mambo Baby,” while Joe Turner’s booming voice turns the place out on “Boogie Woogie Country Girl,” encouraged by Van Wall’s driving piano licks.
Other highlights include Paul Oscher blowing some fine harmonica on “Mudcat,” from Muddy Water’s Live (At Mister Kelly’s) recording, John Hammond’s raw vocal on the Billy Boy Arnold classic “I Wish You Would,” with searing guitar from Robbie Robertson of the Band and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones on bass, and ‘Honky Tonk Part 1 & 2,” a monster instrumental hit for Bill Doggett with Clifford Scott’s wailing saxophone wrapped around Billy Butler’s six string magic that quickly became the foundation for many aspiring guitarists. Brownie McGhee reprises a earlier hit with “My Fault #2” with Sonny Terry on harmonica and the esteemed session guitarist Mickey Baker.
The real joy to be derived from this collection comes from artists who never held the spotlight for very long, if at all. Bob Gaddy cut numerous records under his own name, and backing up other artists. Simon makes sure Gaddy gets his due in the book and, after hearing his rendition of “Stormy Monday Blues,” readers will undoubtedly want to search out more of the piano man’s recorded work. Backing on the song comes from Jimmy Spruill, a guitarist with an inventive style who is also featured in Simon’s book. His instrumental, “Kansas City March,” provides an inkling as to why “Wild” was often attached to his name.
“The Guy With The “45” is a taut blues attributed to the Allen Bunn & Trio. Bunn later became Tarheel Slim, cutting several hit records while sharing the vocals with his wife, Little Ann, as on a rousing take of ‘Security”. Their cut is almost overshadowed by the stellar tenor sax from Noble “Thin Man” Watts on “Hard Times (the Slop),” with Spruill once again adding his guitar to the mix. Singer Al Pittman, who performed as Dr. Horse, had a long career as an entertainer, epitomized in his smooth tale of a player of the highest order on “Jack, That Cat Was Clean”.
One unique track comes from Wilbert Harrison, who had topped the charts with “Kansas City,” released on the Fury label, ultimately causing major distribution and legal issues for owner Bobby Robinson, a man who’s impact on the New York blues scene can not be overstated. Their follow-up record, “Goodbye Kansas City,” has familiar music with Harrison now singing the virtues of various NYC clubs and venues. The lead guitar licks are once again courtesy of Spruill, who also played on the original hit.
Another fascinating, unissued track is provided by Simon from a session he did with singer Rosco Gordon in 1994. The author played guitar for Gordon for almost a decade. As noted in the book, Gordon’s unique timing appealed to musicians in the Caribbean islands to the point that Gordon became a major guiding light for ska music. Simon’s track, which he hoped would help garner a recording deal with Alligator Records, features two founding members of the Skatalites, the best-known ska band from Jamaica. “I Wanna Get High” features Gordon exhorting listeners to refrain driving once they get high, with Roland Alphonso adding a finely crafted tenor sax solo and Lester Sterling on alto sax heard on the fade-out ending.
Also included is a deluxe 28 page booklet with brief notes by Broven on each track, along with artist pictures and photos of record labels from noted recordings. Simon gets five pages to add his comments about the genesis of his book, his career playing and interacting with the musicians under consideration, and his personal assessment of the NYC blues scene.
The Ace label has a well-deserved reputation for their first-rate collections based on a common theme. While it may be hard to summarize decades of musical merry-making from a major metropolitan area in one disc, the folks at Ace have done just that, capturing the depth and spirit of of a blues community in all its glory across 26 dynamic tracks.
Good enough to stand on it’s own, the collection really shines when you listen to it while reading Simon’s compelling book, which will add numerous additional layers of knowledge and understanding, especially for artists who have flown under the radar for most blues fans. Don’t miss this opportunity to do a deep dive into some truly amazing music that has stood the test of time.