Ace's third volume of The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions lives up to the standards set by its predecessors. This volume starts off in Memphis, with recordings that Sam Phillips shopped to Modern/RPM in 1950/51. Phillips and the Biharis fell out when Chess was sent and had a hit with Jackie Brenston's 'Rocket 88', but before that Modern acquired some classics from Phillips. MEMPHIS ON DOWN begins with Willie Nix (was there ever a greater singing drummer?) accompanied by Willie Johnson's slash-and-burn guitar. There's more Johnson on Howling Wolf's Riding In the Moonlight and Crying At Daybreak aka Smokestack Lightning, in the versions issued on 78rpm. And if you think Segrest and Hoffman's new biography sewed up everything about the Wolf, read Lester Bihari's report of him commuting between West Memphis and a steel plant in Gary. This is just one of many new pieces of information in Jim O'Neal's lengthy and detailed notes in the beautifully presented booklet.
Also from Sam Phillips came a track apiece by Bobby Bland, with wonderful Matt Murphy guitar, and by mouth-harp genius Walter Horton (Now Tell Me Baby also in its 78rpm version). One-man band Joe Hill Louis has four tracks, in both his 'be-bop boy' and his down-and-dirty modes. Joe's friend Jim Lockhart also offers contrasts, with the jiving Boogie Woogie Baby and the droning, introverted Empty House Blues (a wonderful performance captured on a cleaned-up noisy acetate). Alfred "Blues King" Harris was an associate of Walter Horton's. His two previously unreleased songs are believed to have come from Phillips but Modern probably thought they were too old-fashioned for release quite apart from the guitarist, moved by Harris's lack of Sufficient Clothes, wailing "Aw, shit, man!" on the track.
The Memphis recordings are followed by more of Joe Bihari and Ike Turner's field recordings. In Helena, Arkansas in January 1952 they'd hoped to record Sonny Boy Williamson, but he would only play as an accompanist, presumably out of loyalty to Lillian McMurry's Trumpet label. Nothing from this session was issued on 78, and as Jim O'Neal points out, the tracks do have their shortcomings: the sound balance is off, guitarist W C Clay is a bit jazzy for this company, and the interplay between Sonny Boy and the other harp player is sometimes raggedy. The second harmonica probably wasn't played by Drifting Slim, incidentally. (Who was it? Buy the CD!) Still, these are important recordings by a version of the King Biscuit Entertainers, and the songs, sung by veteran pianist "Dudlow" Taylor and drummer "Peck" Curtis, are a fine mix of tradition (check out Taylor's 44 Blues) and originals like Curtis's enigmatic Jerusalem Blues.
The CD concludes a long way from the Mississippi River, in space if not in spirit. The Dixie Blues Boys were recorded in Los Angeles in 1955, and researchers have had years of fun speculating about where in the South they came from, and especially about who the two contrasting harmonica players were. Well, we know their names at last, thanks to John Broven digging out the original contract, and Bob Eagle's research in the census and Social Security records has produced some dates of birth and death. Again, I'm not going to give it away - buy the CD, and you'll get the Dixie Blues Boys' five fine tracks (two previously unissued), and 21 other gems of post-war downhome blues.
by CHRIS SMITH