Saturday, August 30, 2008

Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton

I was going to write about some music from a more modern era this time, but I thought it was worth covering one more classic blues album before moving on to other things. 

As I have mentioned in previous posts, most of my early exposure to blues and roots music came from cover versions on early records by the English groups. In late 1968, I bought this classic album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers. It was one of the first blues albums in my growing record collection.

I saw Cream play live in November of 1968 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. My good friend Neil Ayer and I escaped from the Pottstown Lock Up to catch the show. It was only the second rock concert I had been to in my young life (A Hendrix show the year before was my first), so I was quite impressed with everything that I saw that night. Although I didn't take any photographs of the show, I can still remember clearly the look of the players in the band. I also remember how loud the music was and the long jams they played like Toad and Crossroads. Great stuff.

Unfortunately, this was in the era of the revolving stage at the Spectrum. The band was in the middle of the arena and the stage revolved around. This was a terrible decision in terms of the sound, because it was either blasting straight at you or bouncing off the other side of the venue when the musicians faced the other way. 

At the time, I was oblivious to any of this. Neil Ayer, who played guitar and had a little more knowledge about music than I did, declared it all to be "quite bogus" or something like that. He might have been right, but it still was a historic night for me. In retrospect, we were lucky to see this band that played so few dates, regardless of the presentation.

Because of my interest in Eric Clapton after the concert, I bought this John Mayall album. Recorded in 1966, after Clapton left the Yardbirds and joined the band, it is probably the best blues album ever recorded by an English group. It is amazing to listen now to 21 year old Clapton taking on the blues standards and making them his own.

This was my first exposure to Hideaway, the Freddy King classic instrumental, which is still one of my favorite blues songs. Clapton and Mayall also do a great job on Robert Johnson's Rambling On My Mind, on which Clapton makes his recorded singing debut. They also nail Otis Rush's All Your Loving.

From start to finish, it is a wonderful album and one you should have on your playlist. Available from Amazon as well. Pick it up.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


In the summer of 1967, I spent a lot of time hanging around with Wick Beavers listening to music at his house in Watch Hill. At that time, Wick (check him out at was just a little hipper than the rest of the summer gang and his taste in music reflected it. Growing up in New York City will do that to the average 15 year old.

Projections by the short-lived band called The Blues Project was the featured album at Club Beavers that summer. I like the sound and ended up buying a copy before heading back to school. That fall, while incarcerated at the juvenile facility in Pottstown, PA, I played Projections repeatedly. In fact, before John Wesley Harding was released in December, it was my album of choice.

Projections was a good album for young ears for two reasons. First, the Blues Project was a band of very talented musicians. Second, the song selection on the album was an eclectic mix of blues, jazz, psychedelia and even folk rock. It was a taste of everything that was not being played on AM Radio at the time.

This album was my second introduction to the music of Al Kooper, who was a major force behind the Blues Project. My first real introduction was hearing the song This Diamond Ring which he wrote for Gary Lewis and the Playboys. It was an number one hit in 1965.

As most music fans know, Al Kooper was a Brill Building boy prodigy who wrote that hit song when he was 15 years old. He also was in the studio for the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, where he created the signature organ riff on Like a Rolling Stone. His experiences with Dylan and Mike Bloomfield (see my post from August 24) on the Highway 61 sessions are an oft-repeated story, which is described first hand in Kooper's book, Back Stage Passes and Back Stabbing Bastards. (Highly recommended and available from Amazon) He also played some of Dylan's earliest electric gigs, including The Newport Folk Festival and Forest Hills.

After the work with Dylan and the brief stint with the Blues Project, Kooper formed Blood Sweat and Tears and was largely reponsible for their successful first album, Child is  Father to the Man. Next, he played with Mike Bloomfield on the Super Session albums. He has played on hundreds of other best selling records. He also discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced their first three albums.

Kooper was back in Dylan's touring band when I saw Bob play in Houston, Texas in 1980. This was the tour after Bob came back from the all Christian period and started playing his old material. It was great to see him on the bandstand and it was an excellent show.

Al Kooper has made a huge contribution to modern music. He has a great website that is worth checking out. As mentioned above, his book is fascinating reading. You should pick it up.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

MIKE BLOOMFIELD: The Best White Blues Guitarist Everybody Has Forgotten

One of the first blues albums I ever owned was the first release by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I'm sure that I bought it on a trip to Robert's Records with "Guitar Johnny" Nicholas in the summer of 1967.

Up until that time, my musical education, which began with the Kingston Trio and Bobby Darin, had only advanced from AM Radio and Spector's Wall of Sound to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Dylan's early albums. Like a lot of American kids, I got my first taste of blues and roots music through the cover versions recorded by the English groups like the Beatles, Stones, and Animals. Before that, I had very little exposure to the blues.

I can still remember dropping the needle on the first track of the album and hearing the blast of Born in Chicago. First, the rhythm section kicks in with Butterfield's harp right there. After the vocals start, there is that distinctive lead, like the buzz of an angry bee, from the guitar of Mike Bloomfield. It was a kind of music I had never heard before and I couldn't get enough of the whole album. Something about the look of the band and the raw sound captured my imagination and made me hungry to hear more blues.

Within the year, I was diving deeper into Dylan's music and history. I found a newspaper article about Dylan's electric breakout at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965. Looking at a newspaper picture of the band from that night, I recognized Bloomfield on the bandstand. There he was with his Jew-Fro and trademark hunched stance over the Telecaster. Later someone gave me a bootleg tape of that night. His guitar jumped off the tape at me. It was vintage Bloomfield and loud enough to help Bob shake up the folk establishment.

Next, I realized that the lead guitar on my new favorite album, Highway 61 Revisited was Mike Bloomfield as well. The story of the contribution of Al Kooper and Bloomfield on Highway 61 is well known. In his fantastic book, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards (available at Amazon and highly recommended), Kooper describes the scene when Bloomfield arrives in the studio:

                  "Suddenly Dylan exploded through the doorway, and in tow
 was this bizarre-looking guy carrying a Fender Telecaster
 without a case. Which was weird, because it was the dead of winter 
 and the guitar was all wet from the rain and snow. But he just
 shuffled over into the corner, wiped it off , plugged in and
                   commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I ever heard."

Notice the difference between the guitar on Dylan's previous album, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61. Bruce Langhorne plays some nice fills on the electric side of the album, but his playing is no match for Bloomfield's take charge licks on Highway 61. Although it may not be the guitar of the "Thin Wild Mercury Sound" Bob was searching for, it certainly was an important stop on the way to Robbie Robertson and that sound.

Raised in Chicago, Mike was exposed to the blues scene of the South Side at a very early age. He earned the respect of the established players because of his obvious and enormous talent. After his work with Butterfield and Dylan, he formed a band called The Electric Flag. They played at the Monterey Pop Festival and released one pretty good album, A Long Time Comin'. In 1968, he teamed up with old friend Al Kooper for the Super Session albums. Although popular at the time, they seem a little uneven and dated to me now.

After that, Bloomfield continued to do session work and made a couple of solo albums. He lived in San Fransisco and played at local clubs. Unfortunately, his heroin habit became a big factor. On February 15, 1891, he was found dead of an overdose in a parked car. A brilliant career cut short.

Well before Clapton became "God", Mike Bloomfield was the best in the land. It is a shame that he gets so little recognition today. If you are not familiar with his music, add some to your playlist. Essential Mike Bloomfield:
  1. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965)
  2. East-West   Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965)
  3. Highway 61 Revisited  Bob Dylan (1965)
  4. A Long Time Comin'   The Electric Flag (1968)
  5. Super Session  Bloomfield, Kooper and Stills (1968)
  6. The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (1968)
  7. Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield; The Lost Concert Tapes (1968)

Next Post: Al Kooper


Sunday, August 17, 2008


I was very sad to hear that Jerry Wexler died last week. In the summer of 1993, I was reading his fantastic biography Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, while staying with the Stumpy JRs in East Hampton. 

One night after more than a few cocktails, we decided to go over to The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett to check out some music. When we walked in the door, there was an all girl blues band called Big Sister on the bandstand. I got talking to one of the locals at the bar who told me that Jerry Wexler's daughter, Lisa, was the drummer in the band. He said: "That's Jerry Wexler standing right over there." 

Without much hesitation, I walked over and introduced myself. Having always been a huge fan of all the Atlantic Records artists, this was a peak experience for me. Jerry was very friendly and we talked about his music for the rest of the night. Later, he was nice enough to inscribe my copy of his book, which is now a prized part of my book collection.

 It is said that Jerry coined the term "Rhythm and Blues". As a partner at Atlantic Records and later as an independent, he produced some of the finest records made in the last 50 years. If you are not familiar with the career of Jerry Wexler, here is a list of a few of his artists:
  1. Big Joe Turner
  2. Ray Charles
  3. The Drifters
  4. Solomon Burke
  5. The Coasters
  6. Sam and Dave
  7. Wilson Pickett
  8. Percy Sledge
  9. Aretha Franklin
  10. Duane Allman
  11. Doug Sahm
  12. Dire Straits
  13. Dusty Springfield
  14. Willie Nelson
  15. Bob Dylan
Of all the records he produced, these are my favorites and they should be part of your collection:
  1. Dusty in Memphis
  2. Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie
  3. Slow Train
Imagine a man with so much talent that he could make a classic album with such a wide variety of artists: Big Joe Turner, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Dusty Springfield, even Bob Dylan.... now that is covering a lot of ground.

His work with the original Atlantic Records artists is legendary, but how about his work with Bob Dylan on Slow Train? He has the vision to put Bob's "faith of the moment" songs together with Mark Knopfler and a killer rhythm section. Not only does it revitalize Bob's career (again), Bob wins a Grammy for Serve Somebody.

Jerry Wexler had his hand in the creation of some very special music. You should have a lot of it in your life or you are missing out.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


In the words of the great Cliff Hoskins; "Shit God Damn!" I have been going to Dylan shows since 1974. I have seen the good, the bad and the (very) ugly. From the nadir of a show in Corpus Christi with the GE Smith band to high spots like Wallingford Ct in the summer before the release of Time Out of Mind, I have seen all kinds of shows. Last night at the MGM Theatre at Foxwoods was definitely one for the ages.

 First a few words about the MGM. After a liquid warm up at the bar of the Craftsteak across from the entrance to the theatre, yours truly and BobCat Numero Uno, Cro Ahern, strolled into the theatre. What a great venue. They have plush seats with plenty of leg room and even a cocktail waitress to help keep it rolling. A great place to see a show.

Settling down in row D dead center, we soon started to smell the incense and knew the show was starting soon. Shortly after nine, the lights went down and out came Bob and the boys. They immediately launched into a classic version of Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat. Having seen the set list from the last few night, we knew things were going to be different tonight. 

Next came Times They are a Changing, Things Have Changed and a beautiful, I'll Be Your Baby Tonight. Bob was in good voice and the band was smoking. Bob's keyboards were high in the mix and he really was playing for all he was worth. He was leaning in to the keys and kicking his legs out with enthusiasm. He even took several solos on the keyboard. He also played great harp on many songs which added to our excitement. He has good wind for a guy who is 67. 

Denny Freeman's guitar licks were tasty all night.  He has really taken to Bob's material. His lead on All Along The Watchtower was outstanding. Stu Kimball is now back from rhythm guitar jail and got a few leads. Tony Garnier and George Recile were solid as always.

Other highlights included a gorgeous version of I Believe in You, a song I have never heard live. Perhaps it was in honor of the great Jerry Wexler, the producer of Slow Train, who died yesterday. 

There was also the Just Like a Woman audience participation sing along. We were all singing the chorus with Bob coming in a few beats behind. A great moment.

Although at times Bob looked like Gumby in Western attire, he played his ass off. His singing was awesome and it was a great show. I am still excited about seeing it. If the Never Ending Tour comes to your town, don't miss it.

Monday, August 11, 2008


Another 50's rhythm and blues singer and songwriter who has slipped through the cracks into obscurity is Chuck Willis. Much the same way James Carr (see my post from June 2) never received the recognition he deserves, Chuck Willis is known by very few modern music fans

Are you familiar with It's Too Late ( She's Gone) from Derek and the Domino's Layla? He wrote it. How about Hang up my Rock and Roll Shoes from The Band's Rock of Ages? He wrote that one too. 

Chuck Willis was born in Atlanta in 1928. After a few hits with Okeh Records in the early 50's, Chuck moved to Atlantic Records in 1956. He had immediate success with It's Too late and Juanita. In 1957, he took the blues standard, C.C. Rider, to number one on the R&B chart. It was huge pop hit as well.

His last hit was What Am I Living For, which is a song that "Guitar Johnny" Nicholas has been covering for years as part of his live show. "Mr Guitar" has great taste in covers, so you can be sure this is a classic song.

Unfortunately, Chuck had problems with ulcers and died after an operation for peritonitis in 1958. He was 30 years old. A promising career cut short.

Buy Stroll On:The Chuck Willis Collection from Amazon or add some Chuck Willis to your playlist. These are his essential songs:
  1. C.C. Rider
  2. It's Too Late
  3. Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes
  4. What Am I living For
  5. Juanita
  6. Betty and Dupree

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


When I lived in Boston in the early 70's, there were two local blues bands that were really good. One was the James Montgomery Band, which was the personal favorite of Mike Martenec (aka The Maniac). The other was the J. Geils Band, which went on to have a large national following. The lead singer and front man for that band was Peter Wolf.

Peter Wolf was originally a DJ on the best Boston radio station of the day, WBCN. He joined the J. Geils Band in 1967. They had a lot of recording success, and were also a great live act because of Wolf's singing and energetic stage presence.

 In 1983, Peter left that band for a solo career. His best solo album is the 2002 effort Sleepless. Produced by former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, it features Wolf's excellent song writing and vocal talents. The record also includes contributions from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Nice help if you can get it.

 The album has a number of Wolf originals that show a lot of Dylan influence. It also contains rhythm and blues covers that suite his style well. The band creates a Atlantic Records sound that works well with Wolf's vocals. I particularly like Five O'clock Angel and A Lot of Good Ones Gone. 

Although it received good reviews on release from Rolling Stone, the album mostly slipped through the cracks as far as the public was concerned. I think it is an over looked gem. 

Sleepless is available at Amazon or on iTunes. Add it to you playlist.