In recent years, Ace has returned to an 'early calling' and has been regularly mining the Modern vaults to produce a vitally important series of CD releases. Modern, as a major independent - and thus serving as a commentary on the development of black music from the end of the war through to the 60s - is of at least equal importance to contemporaries like King, Imperial, Specialty or Chess. Each release deserves the support and attention of all who are remotely interested in the Blues and Rhythm & Blues of the period. Downhome and Country Blues are not being ignored and exciting plans are ahead. Listeners have already been treated to the first Smokey Hogg CD to be truly representative of his best work (CDCHD 780) and a recent John Lee Hooker (CDCHD 799). Fast on the heels of these releases, we have this Joe Hill Louis collection now at hand.
Writing about Joe Hill Louis actually brings some nostalgia for this writer. The first time I actually heard Joe was on a 45 rpm bootleg on a label actually called Bootleg. In those earlier days of Postwar Blues research, the word was not a stigma. Back in 1964, such records were not the exploitational exercises that so many have become today and were put out in pressings of 99 copies without hope of any real profit and in the firm belief that fine unavailable music had to be preserved. The idea that such works, even unissued recordings as we have here, would one day be issued from the masters themselves would have been unimaginable at the time. I approached that 45 with some doubts because the "one-man-band" description seemed to suggest little more than a novelty performer. My surprise was profound when I heard the perfect cohesion of vocal, harmonica, guitar, drum and hi-hat. Indeed, had I not known, I would have accepted the music as a very fine downhome blues combo performance.
It turned out that this was Joe Hill Louis's first Modern 78 and I, together with my friends, wasted no time in getting every one of his records that we could find. We discovered that Joe progressed to an emphasis on guitar for many of his records and often echoed elements of John Lee Hooker's picking for songs like Cold Chills and Street Walkin' Woman. This full 78-minute collection with stunning remastering includes a wonderful guitar-laden alternate of the latter song, which features more down and dirty picking than even the issued version. Many readers will already know that these sides were recorded by legendary Memphis record man Sam Phillips and that Joe was just about his first discovery. A version of every song known to have been sent by Phillips to the Bihari brothers for release on Modern is compiled here, including many that never did actually get to see the light of day.
Sam Phillips himself provides personal reminiscences of Joe for this release in an exclusive interview by Martin Hawkins, and fondly remembers the good-natured friendly character that others have described in the past. Joe did get unwittingly involved in the Phillips-Chess-Bihari 'wars' and, like Howling Wolf and Rosco Gordon, found himself being recorded in field sessions by the Biharis while continuing to record sessions for Phillips, with records appearing on Checker and Sam's new Sun label. In early 1952, like other harmonica players, Joe heard and was amazed by Little Walter's amplified harp sounds and soon 'plugged in' and again made the instrument his main emphasis. The last Bihari field session finds Joe thus amplified and in one-man-band format at his absolute best.
Because of contractual concerns, the results were given to Lester Bihari and put out as by Chicago Sunny Boy on the new Meteor label. Unfortunately, the four issued recordings were overdubbed with bass and additional drums and their raw effectiveness was diluted. Two rock solid boogie instrumentals appeared in 1961 on a Howling Wolf Crown LP and have basically been ignored ever since. For the first time all eight of these pieces, including an alternate of the great Woodchopper's Ball are assembled together in undubbed form. Maybe it's a little early to proclaim 'Blues CD of the Year' but there is no question that this landmark collection will be right up there when the final reckoning is done.
By Dave Sax