Friday, March 18, 2011

A Detour off Highway 61: Chicago

Today we’ll make a detour away from 61 Highway and head towards that new Jerusalem of the North, Chicago, Illinois.  Once they had left the deep-south and found their way to Memphis the vast majority of African Americans moved further north to what was then America’s second city, Chicago.  The Great Migration saw poor, rural African Americans fan out across all the great northern industrial cities but Chicago seemed to hold a special attraction. By 1930 more than 230,000 African Americans lived in Sweet Home Chicago.  Today a third of the city’s population is black.

Chicago’s rich musical heritage can be traced back to trouble down in New Orleans.  That city’s fabled red light district was known as Storyville, and in addition to the brothels, drugs and violence the neighborhood was an early hot-bed of  jazz. In 1917 several sailors on shore leave were murdered in Storyville. The military authorities in Washington pressured New Orleans’ mayor to shut the district down (‘you can make whorin’ illegal, but you can't make it unpopular,’ he was reported to have commented around that time). Many of the city’s early jazz heroes, who had made a living from playing for clients in the bordellos along Basin Street, drifted northward to Memphis, St Louis and Chicago.

King Oliver, the first great jazz trumpet player (and mentor of Louis Armstrong) by the early 1920s was settled and hugely popular in Chicago. As the Great Migration gained momentum Chicago’s studios were making blues and jazz recordings of newly arrived or visiting singers and musicians from all across the South. For an interesting article on the intertwined histories of the blues and Chicago, click here

From those early roots through Maxwell Street jam sessions and the mighty music factories of record labels like Chess and VeeJay and Argo/Cadet the Windy City became one of the laboratories responsible for the birth of rock ‘n roll, soul and a very distinctive variety of gospel music.

As at every other stop along 61 Highway, selecting just four cupcakes to represent the produce of a very huge musical bakery, is pure craziness. But here we go: four of my favorite Chicago records.

The Lost Tapes (1999) is quite simply one of the best records by the greatest bluesman of all time, Muddy Waters.  Though not as well known as the classic Chess sides he and his series of all star bands recorded between the late 1940s and early 1960s, this collection of powerful live sessions is about as good as blues gets. 

                  Track Listing:
1.     Honey Bee
2.     Hoochie Cootchie Man
3.     Walking Thru the Park
4.     Trouble No More
5.     Just to be With You
6.     Muddy’s Introduction to 19 Years Old
7.     She’s 19 Years Old
8.     Long Distance Call
9.     Mannish Boy
10.  Crawlin’ Kingsnake

Listen here.

With a voice as deep and as powerful as that of Muddy WatersLou Rawls grew up in Chicago singing in various gospel groups (often competing with his friend Sam Cooke) before becoming a jazz, soul and r&b crooner of the highest caliber. His mellifluous baritone and his ability to sing in almost any style makes him one of Chicago’s most beloved sons.I’ve selected one of his late career highpoints, At Last (1989). With some stellar support from Dianne ReevesGeorge Benson and Brother’ Ray Charles, he tears through an amazing range of songs including two by alt-country hero, Lyle Lovett!

                  Track Listing:
1.     At Last
2.     Two Years of Torture
3.     Fine Brown Frame
4.     Good Intentions
5.     That’s Where It’s At
6.     If I Were a Magician
7.     You Can’t Go Home No More
8.     Room With a View
9.     After the Lights Go Down Low
10.  She’s No Lady
11.  Oh, What a Nite
Listen here.
Eddie Harrisa Chicago jazz sax player has been often put down by the jazz snobocracy because he’s never been content to play only ‘serious’ or ‘pure’ jazz whatever those things are. Reflecting his hometown’s splendiferous musical variety Harris has ventured into funk, soul jazz and even (horrors!) pop music. Although, Swiss Movement (1969) is a collaboration with Les McCann and was recorded live at Montreux, it is one of the all time essential jazz recordings. Or recordings of any style actually. You need this album.
                  Track Listing:
1.     Compared to What
2.     Cold Duck Time
3.     Kathleen’s Theme
4.     You Got it In Your Soulness
5.     The Generation Gap
6.     Kaftan
Listen here.
John Prine was once hailed as the ‘new Dylan’. Thankfully, he survived this media-granted curse without too many ill effects. And in the intervening decades, we the public have had the pleasure of so much wonderful, graceful, funny and profound music. Hailed as an American icon by NPR (and many other august authorities, including the Washerman’s Dog), John Prineis simply a wonderfully sardonic songwriter whose take on the world cuts both as sharp as a knife and as gentle as a prairie breeze. I’ve selected Pink Cadillac (1979) because it is 1) a helluva a romping record and 2) it was recorded at Sun Studios, not too far from Highway 61 in Memphis.
                  Track Listing:
1.     Chinatown
2.     Automobile
3.     Killing the Blues
4.     No Name Girl
5.     Saigon
6.     This Cold War With You
7.     Baby, Let’s Play House
8.     Down by the Side of the Road
9.     How Lucky
10.  Ubangi Stomp
Listen here.
Next and final stop: Minneapolis.        

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