Posts Tagged ‘Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’

A Baker’s Dozen Of Roads

July 13, 2011

Originally posted June 18, 2008

Although music has always been a part of my life, I’ve not always been very active in finding the music I liked; I let it come to me. I listened to the radio, to the jukeboxes at places that had them, and occasionally went out and bought a record or two. With the exception of the Beatles – whose entire Capitol/Apple catalog I had before I turned nineteen – I made no attempt for many years to focus on any one performer or group. I bought a few records here and there, but not many, as I wandered from my college days into the first years of adulthood.

That changed in 1987, when I spent time with a woman whose love of music equaled mine. We spent many hours of our brief time together in record stores and listening to music new and old in our apartments in St. Cloud. I moved to Minot to teach in the late summer of 1987, hopeful in all ways and renewed in my love of music. As a result, there are a few albums that I bought during my first year in Minot that, for me, carry in their grooves that sense of hope. That hope did not survive into the next summer, but I still love those albums despite that and even though they may not be the best work of the artists or groups involved.

Four of those albums that come most immediately to mind are Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night, Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Memphis Record by Elvis Presley. The first three of those were new albums, and I enjoy them still; the best of them is likely the Springsteen. The Presley album – a two-record set – collects the studio work he did in Memphis in 1969, much of it released that year on From Elvis in Memphis. Some of it was released on the awkwardly titled From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis and two tracks, I believe, were released as non-album singles.

For someone who paid little attention to Elvis while he was alive, The Memphis Record was a revelation. This was not the bloated Elvis who’d been the butt of too many unfunny jokes during his last years. The photos on the ornate double record jacket – made to look like a newspaper – confirmed that, but all one had to do was listen to the music to hear a lean, hungry and talented performer trying his best – with success – to make himself relevant again. Looking back, I recalled that I’d always liked the singles from those sessions – “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain” and “In The Ghetto” – but I’d never thought much about them. So here I was, almost twenty years later, realizing that those singles were the tip of a musical iceberg that was larger and better than I’d thought possible.

I listened to all four sides of the record frequently that first autumn in Minot and came to love the music. One song – new to me – stood out, though. I’m not at all sure why, but Elvis’ version of “True Love Travels On a Gravel Road” is to me one of the best things he ever recorded, and it remains one of my favorite tracks ever. So I’m going to use it as the starting point today.

A Baker’s Dozen of Roads
“True Love Travels On a Gravel Road” by Elvis Presley from From Elvis In Memphis, 1969

“The Long and Winding Road” by Richie Havens from Sings Beatles And Dylan, 1987

“Eternity Road” by the Moody Blues from To Our Children’s Children’s Children, 1969

“Seven Roads (Second Version)” by Fanny, from the sessions for Fanny, 1970

“The Road Shines Bright” by John Stewart from The Lonesome Picker Rides Again, 1971

“Rocky Road” by Peter, Paul & Mary from In The Wind, 1963

“Dark Road” by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee from Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry Sing, 1958

“Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors from Morrison Hotel, 1970

“On the Road” by Michael Johnson from There Is A Breeze, 1973

“The Road to Cairo” by David Ackles from David Ackles, 1968

“Tobacco Road” by Bill Wyman & The Rhythm Kings from Struttin’ Our Stuff, 1998

“Six Days On The Road” by Taj Mahal from Giant Step, 1969

“Too Many Roads” by Carolyn Franklin from If You Want Me, 1976

A few notes:

I chuckled when – one day after sharing my negative assessment of the Beatles’ version of “The Long And Winding Road” – Richie Havens’ version of the song popped up. Even from Havens, one of my favorites, it’s only just okay. I’m coming to the conclusion – long overdue, no doubt – that it’s the song I don’t care for, not necessarily the singer. The album that the track comes from – Sings Beatles and Dylan – is nevertheless a good one, well worth finding.

I tend to think that one either loves the Moody Blues or detests them. I like them, even as I acknowledge that their hippie philosophy – which could induce eye rolls even forty years ago – is sometimes a bit much. But I do like their sound, and it’s only when the MB’s get into thoughts truly too heavy to carry – as in “Om” from In Search of the Lost Chord – that I begin to roll my own eyes. To Our Children’s Children’s Children is one of the group’s better albums musically and lyrically.

The version of Fanny’s “Seven Roads” that popped up here is an alternate take, a little bit shorter and a little bit tougher than the version that closed the group’s self-titled first album. Fanny didn’t hang around long – the all-woman group recorded five albums between 1970 and 1974 – but what the group left behind is pretty good. A limited edition box set – First Time in a Long Time: The Reprise Recordings – came out in 2002 and covers everything except the group’s final album, which came out on Casablanca. If you can find it – the box set is available online for prices starting around $70 – it would most likely be all the Fanny you would need.

“Dark Road” is a typical track from a typical album by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. There’s nothing fancy about it, just the two of them, guitar and blues harp (and a little bit of help from drummer Gene Moore). But it’s folk blues about as good – and authentic – as you can get them, recorded before the blues revival of the 1960s.

I don’t know much about David Ackles – I need to do some digging – but I’ve heard a few things and I like them. “The Road to Cairo” is a haunting song and record.

Carolyn Franklin was, of course, Aretha’s sister – she crossed over in 1988 – and If You Want Me was the last of five albums she released on RCA. From what I can tell, only her first album, 1969’s Baby Dynamite, has ever been released on CD. If You Want Me is the only one I have, and it’s pretty good.

(I should note that The Memphis Record is out of print but available if you dig online. The CD release of From Elvis In Memphis has some bonus tracks to go along with the original album. Both have been supplanted by a 1999 release called Suspicious Minds, a two-disc set that has – I believe – everything Elvis released from those 1969 sessions in Memphis as well as a good number of alternate takes and bonus tracks. It’s a good one.)

Saturday Single No. 13

April 21, 2011

Originally posted May 26, 2007

Record collectors talk a lot about the big score: walking into a heretofore unknown shop and walking out with a stack of long-sought 45s, or wandering into a regular stop just as that rare LP is placed in the sale bins. Every record collector I know has a story, and when the tales are told, the collector’s eyes light up just as they must have done at the moment the subject of the tale was spotted.

Sometimes, as it happens, the tale is not so happy: More than once, I’ve entered a record shop and seen another shopper carrying around a record I’ve long been looking for. There’s a temptation at those times to follow the other shopper around like a used car salesman, hoping vainly that he or she will decide otherwise and leave the record on a side shelf, like a grocery shopper leaving an orange next to the baked beans.

Of course, the truly big score in record collecting would be one of those fabled items that collectors hear about but never really see except in auctions or in someone else’s collection. One that comes to mind is Introducing The Beatles, an LP released on the Vee-Jay label in the U.S. because Capitol was uncertain the Beatles would be all that popular outside of Britain. Nearly every copy of that album that shows up these days – forty-three years later – is a fake.

One also hears tales of – and sees on auction sites, very occasionally – vintage 78s that command high prices. Without really digging into the topic, I would imagine that the most sought-after of those would be early blues sides, from the 1920s and 1930s. I know that 78s by Robert Johnson and Charley Patton – to name just two performers – command high prices on the rare times their records are available. It’s not likely there are many out there left to find, but that wasn’t always the case. Gayle Dean Wardlow was one of those who scoured the South during the Sixties, looking for old blues records. His book, Chasing That Devil Music, is a fascinating read and comes with a CD of the most notable of his finds.

I’ve never found anything monumental, but I’ve had some good days and built a pretty good collection of rock and pop rock LPs from, oh, 1960 to 1985. I’d picked up a few blues records along the way, but until December 1998, I really hadn’t dug too deeply into the blues. And then, on a Saturday morning, I got a call from the manager of a Salvation Army store that was about five blocks from where I lived in south Minneapolis.

“You asked me to call you if anyone ever dropped off a lot of records at one time,” she said. “Well, someone just brought in what looks like about twenty boxes. You might want to get over here.”

I poured my coffee in the sink, bundled up, got my bike from the basement storage unit and headed down Pleasant Avenue and over to Nicollet. There were in fact twenty boxes of records on the floor near the front of the store, and another gentleman was digging in them, grinning. I sat on the floor at the far end of the cluster of boxes from him and started digging, too.

My guess is that, frankly, someone had died, and in these days of the CD, his or her relatives had no idea what to do with the record collection. Whoever had owned these records was, I would guess, an audiophile who would buy a record, tape it and then put the record back in the jacket and leave it there. Every one of the inside sleeves was upright, not on its side to allow easy access to the record. And every one of those records had the sheen of newness, a look that’s hard to describe but easy to see.

I began to dig. Records from the 1950s and early 1960s by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. I found Lightnin’ Hopkins and Blind Willie Johnson. Albert King and Leadbelly. John Lee Hooker and Etta James. Anthology after anthology of Chicago blues, country blues, Delta blues. And the five double albums Columbia put out in the early 1970s: The complete recordings of Bessie Smith, in pristine condition.

In addition, there were – relatively – more current records: stuff by the Allman Brothers Band, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and more. I already had those records on the shelves at home, but I grabbed them anyway.

The other gentleman and I crossed paths midway through the cluster of boxes. We nodded, each of us looking as casually as we could at what the other was carrying. I saw a few things in his pile that it would have been nice to have gotten to first; I assume he saw the same in my pile.

By the time I made my way through the boxes, I had fifty albums. At fifty cents a piece, that was $25, and – times were a bit rough back then – that was about the limit of what I could spend that day. I double-bagged the records for their ride in my bike’s saddlebag baskets, thanked the manager profusely for calling me and headed home. There, I sorted through the records, setting aside those that were new to me and looking at the ones that duplicated albums already on my shelves. After lunch, I began comparing copies I already had with copies from that morning’s haul. After keeping the best copies for myself, I put the duplicates in bags and headed out to two of my favorite record stores.

I sold those twelve duplicate albums – including my previous copies of the Bessie Smith recordings – for about $50. So I ended up with thirty-eight new albums – the vast majority of them classic blues – and a profit of about $25.

Among the performers whose records I found that day were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, long-time folk blues artists I knew little about. I bought more of their stuff over the next few years, including the 1973 LP Sonny & Brownie, one of the last albums the two ever released before their partnership ended acrimoniously in 1975. (They performed and recorded together for several years despite not being on speaking terms.)

And it’s on that 1973 album that I found one of the funniest songs they ever recorded, with John Mayall adding his piano and sharing the vocals. Its title, if not the lyrics, kind of describes me that morning at the Salvation Army store. So here’s “White Boy Lost In The Blues,” today’s Saturday Single.