From a British perspective a one man band is most likely to be seen as a humorous novelty act, but when viewed within a longer term assessment of the history of black American music it holds a key, if under-appreciated, place. Back in the twenties and thirties one man band acts plied their trade with material drawn from a wide selection of musical traditions: minstrel, folk songs, dance music and the blues. However, after the intervention of World War 2 and the major movement of black workers from the south to the northern industrial cities, the demand for such a wide repertoire diminished in favour of electrified country blues and most one man bands fell by the wayside. Dr Ross was one man who not only survived the shift in emphasis, but positively thrived by sheer force of talent.
Isaiah Ross was born on 21 October 1925 in Tunica, Mississippi, and was tutored on harmonica by his father, but unlike some other young players he did not move straight into a musical career. Wartime army duties took him to the Pacific in 1944, and then led him to a second army stint in the early fifties after which he moved to Illinois for motor industry work. Another move to Memphis coincided with a return to music and some recording at the famed Sun Studios from which four tracks were issued, two on Sun Records and two on Chess. However, he maintained the motor work to feed his family. He was rediscovered in 1964 by musicologists who arranged a concert at the University Of Chicago on January 30th 1965 at which these live recordings were made. Listening to them now, a half century on, it is hard to believe that the man had not been playing continuously as he is so totally in command of his playing and his stagecraft. Perhaps the most striking thing is that he genuinely sounds like a whole band from the opening groove of ‘Dr Ross' Rock’. He had earlier stated that to play it all himself got around the problems of breaking in new players to a band structure, leading him to become so very sympatico with himself. He uses open tunings for his guitar work, allowing more emphasis on his key harmonica playing. Listen, for instance, to the fabulous and expressive 'conversation' he has with himself on ‘Mama Blues’, or his solo harp work on Sonny Boy Williamson's ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’, the latter being a major influence on him. Like certain far better-known players who came after him, he played the guitar upside down left-handed without restringing, and also flipped the harmonica so the treble was to the left.
Influential enough to have had his material covered by the likes of Cream and the Flamin' Groovies, Dr Ross' talents shine through every one of the ten tracks here, and although he has never achieved the fame of other blues players one listen to this album will excite and enthuse even casual listeners as it is an absolute classic of a lost genre.