Monday, March 14, 2011

A Journey Up Highway 61: St Louis

St Louis, Missouri

If Memphis is honored best by the memory of its great studios/labels that defined rock n roll and r&b in the ‘60s and 70s, St Louis, less than 250 miles up Highway 61, is a town proud of its jazz heritage.  Like so many settlements that sprang up along the banks of the Mississippi in the 18th century and turned into cities in the 19th, St Louis’s roots are European. Like the grandly named Memphis, this city in the heart of America was set up as a trading post by French fur traders/explorers in honor of the medieval French king Louis IX.  With the acquisition of nearly half of the entire north American continent from the French through the Louisiana Purchase, small river ports like St Louis quickly turned into bustling cities. Immigrants from Ireland and Germany poured into this town at the center of the United States and soon it was the fourth largest urban center in the country. 

African Americans who had been travelling up 61 Highway to escape the stultification of slavery for decades began to push beyond Memphis.  The booming industrial factories of the states further north pulled thousands upon thousands out of the cotton fields of the Delta.  The world’s largest brewery (Anheuser Busch), aviation plants and all sorts of other workshops in St Louis offered jobs and a sense of (if not a de facto) escape from the deep racism of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

The music came too. St Louis developed its own styles of the blues and r&b and is hometown to some of the most iconic of American musicians.  Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Chuck Berry, Louis Jordan, Albert King are just some of the names. Each of these gents created whole new schools of jazz and the blues and its unruly child, rock ‘n roll.  What is it about this city? Must be the magic in the mixing of the waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.  But whatever it is, here again, in St Louis, Missouri, Highway 61 delivers us to another monumental metropolis of music.

Miles Davis’s album ‘Round About Midnight (1956) is considered by many to be one of his defining moments. In this session Davis lets loose a young former r&b saxophone player by the name of John Coltrane on the world.  Philly Joe Jones keeps impeccable beat on the drums and Miles blows his muted horn with inspired beauty and grace.  A genuine 5 star performance.

            Track Listing:
1.     Round Midnight
2.     Ah-Leu-Cha
3.      All of You
4.     Bye Bye Blackbird
5.     Tadd’s Delight
6.     Dear Old Stockholm
7.     Two Bass Hit
8.     Little Melonae
9.     Budo
10.  Sweet Sue, Just You

Listen here.

What would rock ‘n roll be like with Chuck Berry? The cheeky, angry guitar player who wrote so much of the rock primer, Maybelline, Johnny B Goode, C’est La Vie and Roll Over Beethoven, and who seemed to be always getting into some kind of trouble with the law but who (almost unique among his peers) always knew how to get (and usually got) his dues from record companies, club owners and agents, blew out of St Louis and took the world by storm. When the winds stopped blowing there was this funny craze called rock ‘n roll all round the place.

I’ve selected a collection of Mr Berry’s from the time he spent at the famous Chess Records stable in Chicago. As you’d expect these are blues songs rather than rock ‘n roll songs, many of the them covers.  Chuck Berry loved country music and it was his remake of a country tune ‘Ida Red’ as ‘Maybelline’ that caught the attention of Leonard Chess who saw Berry in the same way Sam Phillips saw Elvis Presley, if with a twist. While Phillips saw Elvis as ‘white boy’ who could sing like a ‘black man’, Chess saw in Chuck Berry’s ability to remake country music with a black feel.  Berry went on to make a lot of money for himself and Chess Records by penning most of his iconic hits while he recorded with them.

I like this set because it shows his true blues roots. And chops. The guitar playing on this record is outstanding.

            Track Listing:
1.     Confessin’ the Blues
2.     Run Around
3.     Worried Life Blues
4.     The Things That I Used To Do
5.     Blues for Hawaiians
6.     Wee Wee Hours
7.     I Still Got the Blues
8.     Down the Road Apiece
9.     No Money Down
10.  Stop and Listen
11.  Blue on Blue
12.  Sweet Sixteen
13.  I Got To Find My Baby
14.  I Just Want to Make Love to You
15.  Merry Christmas Baby
16.  Deep Feeling
17.  Wee Wee Hours
18.  Don’t You Lie to Me
19.  Ain’t That Just Like a Woman
20.  Driftin’ Blues
21.  Blue Feeling

Listen here.

Albert King, along with B.B King and Freddie King, one of the fabled Three Kings of the Blues, was probably the most loved bluesman by the second and third generation of rock ‘n roll guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  His story is that of Highway 61 itself. Born into deep poverty in Indianola, Mississippi he spent his youth picking cotton in rural Arkansas. By the time he was 17 he had made his way to St Louis to try his hand in as a blues guitarist.  He didn’t find any commercial success and moved to Chicago before coming back to St Louis in the mid-1950s.  King Records signed him and in 1961 he finally had his first hit, Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong’.  I have selected the record he made for King, The Big Blues, for your listening pleasure.

            Track Listing:
1.     Let’s Have a Natural Ball
2.     What Can I Do to Change Your Mind
3.     I Get Evil
4.     Had You Told it Like It Was (It Wouldn’t Be Like it Is)
5.     This Morning
6.     I Walked All Night Long
7.     Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong
8.     Travelin’ to California
9.     I’ve Made Nights by Myself
10.  This Funny Feeling
11.  Ooh-Ee Baby
12.  Dyna Flow

Listen here.

All loyal readers of The Washerman’s Dog will know that one of my favorite artists is T-Bone Burnett. He is a son of St Louis too. I’ve extolled his virtues elsewhere so will simply include this 1986 country-influenced album, T Bone Burnett. The musicianship (with old friends from the Alpha Band and Los Lobos), the song writing and the singing are all high quality. River of Love is one of T Bone’s best songs ever.  A stone cold classic.

            Track Listing
1.     River of Love
2.     Poison Love
3.     Shake Yourself Loose
4.     No Love At All
5.     Annabelle Lee
6.     I Remember
7.     I Remember
8.     Little Daughter
9.     Oh No Darling
10.  Time
11.  Little Daughter
12.  Song to a Dead Man
13.  The Bird That I Held in My Hand

Listen here.
Next stop (after a slight detour): Chicago, Illinois.

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