Saturday Single No. 110

Originally posted January 17, 2009

Well, since we’re just past the middle of the month, I thought I’d look into the library and see what songs have been tagged as being recorded during January. Keep in mind that maybe five percent of my mp3s have that kind of data available, so this won’t be a comprehensive list. But it could be interesting.

The oldest song I have that was recorded in January is “Slave to the Blues,” a 1926 record by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, often called the “Mother of the Blues.”

Recorded not much later than that is a cluster of songs that come from the celebrated Anthology of American Folk Music. The anthology originally came out in 1952 as a set of six records. It’s now available in a box set of six CDs; it’s not something I play often, but it’s fascinating now and then to drop one of the CDs in and hear the foundations of our current popular music. One of the January recordings in that cluster is Frank Hutchison’s performance of “Stackalee.”

As Wikipedia points out: “Lee Shelton (also known as Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stack O’Lee, Stack-a-Lee and by several other spelling variants) was a black cab driver and a pimp convicted of murdering William ‘Billy” Lyons on Christmas Eve, 1895, in St. Louis, Missouri. The crime was immortalized in a blues folk song that has been recorded in hundreds of different versions.” For those inclined to explore further, a good place to start might be Greil Marcus’ discussion of the song – and the folklore and archetypes behind the song – in his book Mystery Train.

The 1930s finds us in the divergent territories of developing blues and big band music. Kansas Joe McCoy, Charlie Patton, the luminously named King Solomon Hill, Memphis Minnie and a few others document the blues as it developed in the years before World War II. At the same time, January recordings included Tommy Dorsey’s “Song of India,” Harry James (with Helen Humes) performing “Song of the Wanderer,” and the remarkable “Sing, Sing, Sing” as performed by Benny Goodman and his orchestra during the famed Carnegie Hall concert on January 16, 1938, seventy-one years ago last evening.

The 1940s bring us Artie Shaw and his big band, Big Joe Turner and some jazzy early R&B (although it would be years before it was tagged with that label), and Henry “Red” Allen with a whirling and spinning romp of horns and piano called “Get the Mop.” The meaning is veiled, but the music cooks.

January recordings from the 1950s find Hank Williams sitting next to Muddy Waters, with Turner, Big Boy Crudup, Little Walter and the second Sonny Boy Williamson adding some tunes, as do Big Maybelle Smith, Little Richard and – toward the end of the decade and nearing the end of his brief life – Buddy Holly.

The Sixties aren’t particularly well represented in this list of January recordings. The artists that fill most of the 1960s slots here are Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, although there are also single recordings by Tim Hardin, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Fleetwood Mac (in its early incarnation as a British blues band) and Cream.

From there – 1980 through the current day – the list is mostly a pairing of Bruce Springsteen, with recordings from his Tracks box set, and Bob Dylan, with material from the recently released Bootleg Series Vol. 8. There are a few other things: a live 1980 performance of “Pavanne” by Richard and Linda Thompson; Big Joe Turner’s 1983 recording of “Crawdad Hole” and a 2006 romp through “Crash on the Levee/The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” by Levon Helm, Jim Vivino and other friends at one of Helm’s legendary Midnight Rambles.

So what is it we’ll listen to this morning? Well, I skipped over a title in the late 1950s, a recording that became the inspiration for one of the great cover versions in blues history. According to what I’ve read, Muddy Waters first heard “I Got My Mo-jo Working (But It Just Won’t Work On You)” when Ann Cole and the Suburbans performed it live, and he and his band covered the song, which eventually came to be identified with Waters. In an earlier post here, I said that Ann Cole and the Suburbans had evidently recorded the song in 1956. Since then, I’ve learned that the session took place in New York on January 27, 1957.

Cole’s version and Waters’ version were released as singles at the same time.  According to Baton Records founder Sol Rabinowitz, who maintains a website that includes the history of Baton Records, Waters’ Chess release went to No. 7 on the R&B charts, while Cole’s version on Baton records reached No. 3. Neither record, however, is listed as making the R&B chart in Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Book of Top 40 R&B and Hip-Hop Hits.*

So here’s Ann Cole & the Suburbans’ “Got My Mo-Jo Working (But It Just Won’t Work On You)” today’s Saturday Single:

“Got My Mo-Jo Working (But It Just Won’t Work On You)”
Ann Cole & the Suburbans (Baton 237, 1957)

*Additional information about chart performance added July 22, 2013.

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