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Playlist: Real Blues

Compiled By: Craig Alexander Peiss

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Blues Unlimited #167 - A Great Day in Aurora, Illinois

From Steve Franz | Part of the Blues Unlimited series | 01:59:01

On May 5th, 1937, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and Robert Nighthawk made their recording debuts. Accompanied in the studio by Big Joe Williams, the recordings these three men made that day helped shape the future of Chicago Blues as we know it.

Sonnyboywilliamson_small Over the course of two days, Tuesday May 4th and Wednesday May 5th, 1937, the Bluebird Record label arranged for extensive recording sessions with some of their current artists, as well as a few new faces, in the Leland Hotel at Aurora, Illinois (just to the west of Chicago). While some familiar names recorded the first day, Tuesday May 4th (Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, The State Street Swingers), a couple of new ones recorded as well -- Merline Johnson (also known as the "Yas Yas Girl") and Charley West, along with John D. Twitty -- the last two being fairly obscure figures who made just a handful of titles.

For the sessions the following day, five bluesmen drove up from Saint Louis in a 1930 Model A Ford. Veteran musicians Walter Davis, Big Joe Williams, and Henry Townsend were among those coming back into the recording studio, and along with them came Robert Nighthawk (he was known as Robert Lee McCoy in the pre-war days) and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. The latter two were making their debuts as vocalists, courtesy of Walter Davis, who in addition to being a popular Bluebird recording artist, also worked part time as a talent scout. No one could've imagined, at the time, a more propitious recording debut.

Teaming up in the studio with Big Joe Williams, the music that Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson made together was not only a harbinger of the small combo trio format that would gain popularity in the early days of post-war Chicago Blues, Nighthawk would go on to influence virtually every slide guitar player that ever worked in the Windy City. As for Sonny Boy Williamson, his musical legacy is something that Blues musicians still draw upon to this very day, not only in terms of his influential harmonica playing, but his incredibly rich catalog of songs. It's almost impossible to think of a Blues artist who hasn't, at some point in their career, performed or recorded a cover version of one of his songs.

As for the title of this program, we've "borrowed" the phrase from the famous photograph, "A Great Day in Harlem." Certainly, Wednesday May 5th, 1937, was a great day in Aurora, Illinois, as two important and influential Blues musicians got their start, changing the course of Blues history as we know it.

Blues Quest (Series)

Produced by Mike Sanders

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Blues Unlimited (Series)

Produced by Steve Franz

Most recent piece in this series:

Blues Unlimited #317 - 25 from Bob Koester

From Steve Franz | Part of the Blues Unlimited series | 01:58:59

Bu317_large_image_4_small Join us for an extra special treat! We asked Bob Koester, founder of the legendary Delmark Records, for a list of his favorite performances. All we can say is that this is one episode you won't want to miss. It's 25 from Bob Koester, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Other programs featuring material from Delmark Records:


To see Bob Koester's comments regarding the LP he's holding in this picture, Hoodoo Man Blues, be sure to visit the "One LP Project." 


Blues Unlimited #174 - In The Blues Quarters: Mid '60s Chicago Classics Part 2

From Steve Franz | Part of the Blues Unlimited series | 01:59:01

Join us as we profile some mid-1960s Chicago Blues classics. We'll be hearing selections from "Chicago/The Blues/Today!," rare LP-only tracks off of "Blues Southside Chicago" (it was never issued in this country), and some recordings made by Swedish broadcasting legend Olle Helander in May 1964. (Part 2 of 3)

I_blueskvarter_small

In the waning days of 1965, noted author and scholar Sam Charters, along with his wife Ann, had been so caught up in the flurry of activity involved with producing a series of Blues recordings for the Vanguard label, that when they entered a little café looking to have a late breakfast one blistery morning, they hadn't even realized it was Christmas Day.

Although they ended up having a good laugh about it, what they didn't realize is that the subsequent LPs that came out the following year would go on to be something of a defining, high water mark in the history of Chicago Blues. Three LPs, each sporting the work of three different musicians from the Windy City -- all of them entitled Chicago/The Blues/Today! With just a few tracks on each album designed to give the artists a chance to shine just a little bit -- that's exactly what they did, by the way -- it gave much needed boosts to already promising careers, and in other cases, ended up giving some of them the opportunity to start out fresh after their careers had become sidetracked years earlier.

As for the recordings on Blues Southside Chicago, it too presented a cross-section of working musicians in the Windy City at the time, with such artists as Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Boyd, Johnny Young, Homesick James, Walter Horton, Poor Bob Woodfork, and Robert Nighthawk appearing for a few tantalizing moments each. The tapes later wound up in England, where they were issued by the good folks at Decca, with liner notes written by Mike Leadbitter. Another reissue on the Flyright label a dozen years later was basically it -- the tracks were never slated for release in America, and as far as we know, never made the transition to the digital age.

Last, but certainly by no means least, is the work of Swedish broadcasting legend Olle Helander (roughly: uhl-lah hel-AHN-dur). He was born in Sweden in 1919, and became a serious admirer of Jazz and Blues from an early age. In 1947, he authored his first book on the subject, Jazzens Väg (The Road of Jazz), which became the first Swedish language work on the subject. Starting in the late 1940s, Helander began sharing his love and knowledge of the music over the Swedish airwaves, with a series of regular Jazz programs. In 1961, he made a trip to the U.S., spending several months hearing and interviewing musicians from New York to Los Angeles. In May 1964, he came back with a hand-picked sound engineer, Hans Westman, determined to make a documentary record of the music. Later, when he returned with a hundred recordings by more than a dozen different musicians, it became the basis for a ground-breaking 21 part documentary series on Swedish Radio called I Blueskvarter, or simply, In The Blues Quarters.

Partly by design, Helander set out not to record the big names of the blues -- people like B.B. King or Muddy Waters -- but rather, the overlooked and the forgotten: elder statesmen who hadn’t recorded in a while, or in some cases, a few fresh new faces just starting out. Once in Chicago, he set up shop at the Sutherland Lounge on Drexel Avenue, and word quickly got out that blues musicians could come and record and make a few bucks.

As for the Swedish public, Helander's documentary radio series became the stuff of legend. For some listeners, it was the clarion call that led to a life-long interest in this strange and fascinating music -- as one listener put it, after hearing Walter Horton's amplified harmonica playing for the very first time, he shook his head in disbelief, thinking that it wasn't possible for a harmonica to sound like that. Tapes of the radio shows circulated amongst collectors for years, while three subsequent repeat broadcasts made it one of the most requested shows in Swedish broadcasting history. The tapes essentially lay dormant in the vaults for almost 35 years, before a proper reissue program finally gave them the recognition they so richly deserved, starting in 1999. 

It is the driving passion and love for the music that led people like Willie Dixon, Sam Charters and Olle Helander to make these recordings, and as we continue our exploration into the Blues Quarters of the mid-1960s Chicago Blues -- the second of a three part series -- we can only offer our sincere and undying gratitude to them.